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Afghanistan

  • The NYT reports that the Afghan helicopter that crashed on Monday was brought down by a Taliban anti-tank guided missile—the second such downing this year. The U.S. thinks both missiles came from Iran, but there’s a chance they were old CIA-supplied missiles from the 1980s (the Taliban is known to have captured some of those). See the article below for more.

  • Pakistan and Afghanistan are skirmishing at their border, and Afghanistan reported that Pakistani artillery killed 15 civilians. Afghanistan put its air and ground forces on alert.

  • The Taliban’s three-day Eid ceasefire actually starts today (I thought it ended today), and the government said it would release another 500 Taliban prisoners for Eid. That leaves just 400 more to reach the target of releasing 5,000 Taliban prisoners.

  • A large car bomb targeted a crowded market in Logar, killing at least 18. The Taliban denied responsibility.

China

  • Activists say that China is using coronavirus quarantines as a pretext for detaining dissidents—especially now that the latest cluster of COVID cases is in Xinjiang province, where Beijing loves a good excuse to lock Uighurs up.

  • Hong Kong did indeed postpone its legislative elections for a year due (ostensibly) to coronavirus concerns. Activists say coronavirus is just an excuse to indefinitely delay elections and stifle democracy.

Venezuela

  • Venezuela released two American Citgo executives from prison and into house arrest, days after former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson visited Caracas to advocate for their release. The two men—Gustavo Cárdenas and Jorge Toledo—had been on house arrest before, but their relatives hope this transition is a sign they could be sent home soon. They’ve been detained without trial since November 2017.

  • Pres. Maduro announced a new round of negotiations with the opposition, to take place in Norway. Norway will mediate, as it did in the 2019 round. It’s not clear when talks would happen.

Russia

  • Belarussian state media added an interesting tidbit to the story about Russian mercenaries being arrested for trying to disrupt Belarus’s election: apparently the men were identified as mercenaries because they weren’t drinking alcohol or getting rowdy, as all true Russian tourists apparently do in Belarus. Busted! (Russia’s ambassador to Minsk says the men “could” be private security contractors, but they were only in Belarus because they’d missed their flight on a layover…unclear why anybody would transit through Minsk’s tiny airport).

  • Russia, which backs Armenia, said it’s closely monitoring joint military drills that Turkey and Azerbaijan are staging.

Saudi Arabia

  • Saudi’s sovereign wealth fund had bid to buy the Newcastle United football team, but was forced to withdraw its bid because of pressure from activists who object to its poor human rights record.

DRC

  • Congolese forces entered the Okapi Wildlife Reserve in restive Ituri province to evict illegal miners, and ended up killing two of the miners.

Sahel

  • One French soldier was killed in a JNIM attack in Gossi, northern Mali last week.

U.S.

  • The 9.5% decline in U.S. GDP in Q2 was the largest quarterly drop on record.

  • Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf announced that federal agents would withdraw from Portland, and state police will be deployed in their place.

  • The U.S. launched the Perseverance rover yesterday, and it’s heading to Mars along with a Chinese rover and an Emirati observation craft that launched earlier this month.

Other News

  • This rainy season has been devastating for Bangladesh: a quarter of the country is now under water, and floods are likely to worsen.

  • An American on trial for blasphemy in Pakistan was shot multiple times in court. Hardliners are defending the shooter, who said he saw the Prophet Mohammed in a dream the night before, saying he was fighting for his religion.

  • The UK is reinstating restrictions in some regions as COVID cases spike. Residents in hard-hit areas like Manchester, for example, have been ordered not to socialize with other households, although they may still go to pubs or to work at a safe social distance. However, it’s important to note that the UK’s “spike” means adding ~800 cases per day—the U.S., by contrast, is adding 55,000 to 75,000 new cases per day.

A Rarely Seen Weapon Destroys a Helicopter in Afghanistan (NYT)

Another Afghan helicopter was hit in January by an anti-tank guided missile in southern Afghanistan, in a swath of territory long contested by the Taliban.

An Afghan helicopter was attacked in the country’s south this week by what United States and Afghan officials say was a missile rarely seen in the hands of the Taliban, raising new concerns for a beleaguered Afghan military and questions about who supplied the weapon.

On Monday, a Black Hawk helicopter was returning from a medical evacuation mission in Helmand Province and was preparing to land. It is unclear if the helicopter had touched down or was hovering just feet off the ground when it was struck by an anti-tank guided missile, American and Afghan officials said. At least two of the crew members aboard were wounded, one critically.

It was the second attack of its kind this year. In January, another Afghan helicopter was hit by an anti-tank guided missile in the same area near the Kajaki Dam, a swath of territory long contested by the Taliban, the officials said. Initial reports at the time were inconclusive about what had struck the helicopter.

American and Afghan officials claim the weapons used in both strikes were most likely supplied by Iran, but they offered no evidence to support the assertion. The accusation would be alarming if true, as the influx of anti-tank guided missiles could not only give the Taliban a tactical advantage over the Afghan military but also suggest Tehran was trying to undermine the American mission as it is poised to wind down. Iran has denied supplying weapons to the Taliban.

Anti-tank guided missiles, which come in many variants, are common in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, having been captured from military bases and supplied by countries such as the United States, Russia and Iran. But the weapons have been rare in Afghanistan, U.S. military officials said.

In the 1980s, the C.I.A.-backed program that funneled arms and supplies to Afghan insurgents fighting the Soviet Union provided a cache of anti-tank guided missiles. And in 2008, the Taliban captured at least one missile and its launcher from the French.

In 2017, Osprey Flight Solutions, a private company that assesses threats to commercial aviation in conflict zones, tracked a shipment of the weapons into Afghanistan from Pakistan.

“Existing evidence suggests that acquisition and use of portable anti-tank missiles by armed groups in Afghanistan is limited, especially in comparison to places like Syria,” Matthew Schroeder, a senior researcher for the Small Arms Survey, which tracks the prevalence of anti-tank guided missiles and other weapons in war zones, said on Thursday.

Anti-tank guided missiles require training and multiple people to effectively fire them; for the most part, they are unwieldy. But they are capable of accurately hitting a target from kilometers away — well outside the range of small-arms fire — making them dangerous to vehicles, outposts and stationary aircraft. That makes their potential emergence in Afghanistan especially troubling for the Afghan military, which fights its battles mostly from checkpoints.

Shooting at helicopters that are on or near the ground, such as the two incidents in Helmand Province this year, is a tactic that has been used often by insurgent groups during the conflict in Syria.

Afghanistan’s defense ministry said in a statement soon after the attack this week that the Black Hawk had crashed “due to technical issues while it was attempting to land.” In the days since, security officials admitted privately that the aircraft was attacked.

One senior Afghan security official said it was near certain that the helicopter had been hit by an anti-tank missile, but an investigating team was sent to the Kajaki district on Tuesday to explore further. A second senior official said he was unaware of this kind of weapon being deployed against aircraft in Afghanistan beyond the two incidents in Helmand Province this year.

“Based on what I heard from locals, the helicopter was shot by the Taliban,” said Attaullah Afghan, the head of the provincial council in Helmand. “The Taliban have got new weapons that they can use against helicopters when it’s on the ground — a kind of rocket attached to long wire used against tanks and helicopters. A similar weapon was used against another aircraft that had landed in Kajaki.”

While Iranian officials have acknowledged their diplomatic channels with the Taliban, they have repeatedly rejected accusations in recent years of providing material support to the group. They say they support the Afghan government in resisting the Taliban’s quest for a return of their Islamic Emirate, which was hostile to neighboring Iran.

“What is important is that we believe in preserving the current constitution and the political system, we support the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the government,” Abbas Araghchi, Iran’s deputy foreign minister, said in a recent interview with the Afghan channel ToloNews. “Unlike other countries, we haven’t come to give weapons or money to the Taliban.”

In January, after a U.S. drone strike in Iraq killed Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, a top Iranian military officer, many Afghan officials, including the country’s president, Ashraf Ghani, were worried that Iran would use its reach in Afghanistan’s messy battlefield to retaliate against the Americans and intensify the Afghan conflict. Around the time of Mr. Ghani’s inauguration in March, a series of rocket attacks similar to those launched by Iranian-backed militias in Iraq seemed to amplify the officials’ concerns. One hit an area around the presidential palace.

Images from the attack on Monday, verified by a U.S. military officer familiar with the incident, show the burning U.S.-supplied Black Hawk along with a bundle of guiding wire, a distinct feature on some types of anti-tank guided missiles.

For the duration of the war, U.S. military intelligence officers have repeatedly made claims of weapons and supplies flowing from Pakistan, Iran, Russia and other Central Asian countries to the Taliban, but often with little proof. American officials have closely tracked the appearance of surface-to-air missiles and other threats to aircraft, as any type of foreign involvement with such types of weapons would be contentious and substantially increase the risk to American and Afghan forces.

Since anti-tank guided missiles are not designed to specifically target aircraft, their introduction to the conflict is less likely to draw significant condemnation from the Americans, the U.S. military officer said, though it would certainly be an escalation. The United States provided such weapons to Syrian opposition fighters in 2014 and portable surface-to-air missiles to Islamist fighters in the 1980s.

About 60,000 Afghan security forces have been killed since 2014, when U.S. forces began drawing down. And since the beginning of the year, despite a peace agreement between the United States and the Taliban in February, Afghan troops and civilians continue to suffer heavy losses.

Speaking at an event in Kabul on Tuesday, Mr. Ghani said 3,560 Afghan forces had been killed and nearly 6,800 others wounded since the deal between the United States and the Taliban. The casualties are possibly higher, some Afghan officials suggested, with many doubting that the number included the losses of pro-government militias who bear the brunt of the fighting. And from Jan. 1 to June 30, 1,282 civilians were killed and 2,176 were wounded, according to a United Nations report released on Monday.

On Tuesday, after weeks of deadly attacks on Afghan forces, the Taliban announced a three-day cease-fire for the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha. The announcement came soon after Mr. Ghani said a prisoner swap that had faced opposition from his government would be completed and that direct negotiations with the Taliban would start in a week.

But the violence continued right up to the time of the cease-fire, with a car bomb detonating at a crowded roundabout in Pul e Alam, a city about 40 miles south of Kabul. Officials said the target was a security convoy, but the 15 people killed and 30 wounded were a mix of civilians and military.

Under the deal between the United States and the Taliban, which initiated the phased withdrawal of American troops, direct peace negotiations between the Afghan sides were conditioned on swapping 5,000 Taliban prisoners with 1,000 Afghan security forces held by the insurgents.

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