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BLACKWATER USA | DAILY BRIEF


Beirut

  • On the 75th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, rescue crews are digging through rubble from the blast in Beirut. At least 135 deaths have now been confirmed, and many remain missing. The main culprit still appears to be negligence: the ammonium nitrate that set off the blast had been stored at the port for years, despite six requests to remove it.

  • French president Emmanuel Macron visited Beirut to survey the damage, and was mobbed by protesters calling for revolution.

China

  • Microsoft appears to be going ahead with its acquisition of TikTok USA, with mooted valuations ranging from $10 billion to $30 billion. Microsoft hopes to close the deal within the next three weeks—ahead of Pres. Trump’s Sep. 15th deadline for a deal to avoid a ban on the app.

Syria

  • The U.S. imposed its harshest sanctions yet on Syria, although they’re likely to be just as ineffective as previous sanctions against Pres. Assad.

Russia / Afghanistan

  • Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky and Belarussian president Alexander Lukashenko held a phone call to discuss the “terrorist activities” planned by alleged Russian mercenaries in Belarus, and apparently raised the idea of transferring 28 of the 33 men Belarus arrested to the Ukraine for prosecution. (Perhaps Belarussian courts are too beholden to the Kremlin to offer a fair trial).

  • A Foreign Policy essay pasted below describes Russia’s efforts to sow disinformation in Afghanistan with campaigns that challenge Afghan support for American forces in the country, as well as initiatives that distract from the scale of Chinese activities there.

DRC

  • Elon Musk wasn’t the first space privateer: apparently in the 1970s a German guy partnered with Congolese dictator Mobuto Sese Seko to try to launch satellites into space from DRC using rockets. A cool article in The Week (pasted below) by a former Indian Ambassador to DRC has more.

  • A UN report estimates that at least 1,315 people died at the hands of armed groups in DRC during the first half of 2020. That’s three times the figure from the first half of 2019. The Kivus, Ituri, and Tanganyika provinces—where the UN described a “deterioration of the human rights situation—have fared the worst.

Colombia

  • Colombia’s Supreme Court ordered former president Alvaro Uribe into house arrest as the court investigates whether he was involved in bribing witnesses in a murky case involving former death squad members. It was a bad week for Uribe—he then tested positive for coronavirus while under house arrest.

U.S.

  • Here’s one way to keep people from partying during a pandemic: Los Angeles plans to “permanently” shut off power and water to homes and businesses that violate rules against social gatherings, though Mayor Eric Garcetti clarified that the city would only do that after repeat offenses.

  • Weekly U.S. jobless claims fell to their lowest levels since March (but are still far above pre-pandemic levels).

Guyana

  • Guyana’s new president, Irfaan Ali, swore in the remainder of his cabinet yesterday.

Russia Is Winning the Information War in Afghanistan (Foreign Policy)

The country’s former occupier is using Kremlin-backed media to fuel anger toward the United States.

Since 2015, when Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev suspended Moscow’s participation in the Northern Distribution Network supply route, which facilitated the transit of food, fuel, and hardware for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Russia has transformed from an inconsistent partner to a multipronged adversary of the United States in Afghanistan.

To expedite a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and once again establish a geopolitical foothold in the war-torn country, Russia allegedly supplied light weaponry to the Taliban and hosted alternative peace negotiations, which undermined Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s sovereign authority.

The controversy surrounding U.S. President Donald Trump’s nonchalant response to Russia’s alleged payment of bounties to Afghan militants targeting U.S. forces has inspired a flurry of news stories about Moscow’s relationship with the Taliban, but media outlets have paid little attention to a similarly insidious threat to U.S. national security: Russia’s information war against U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Although Russian news channels have highlighted speculative accounts of U.S. criminality in Afghanistan for over a decade, Russia’s information war against U.S. forces in Afghanistan intensified after Moscow strengthened its security ties with the Taliban in 2015. Russia’s disinformation, which is transmitted through radio broadcasts and Kremlin-backed online media outlets, seeks to influence Afghan public opinion of the United States.

In particular, Russia’s disinformation seeks to increase Afghan support for the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces and fuel suspicions about the intentions of the residual U.S. security force presence in postwar Afghanistan.

By promoting anti-American conspiracies on Russian-owned state media outlets that reach an Afghan audience in their native language, such as Sputnik Dari, and lending support to these stories in official statements, the Kremlin has retooled its well-documented array of political interference strategies against Western democracies into a weapon of war in Afghanistan.

Although memories of the Soviet-Afghanistan War of 1979-1989 continue to fuel anti-Russian feelings in Afghanistan, Russia’s infrastructure investments and construction of educational institutions have improved its image among young Afghans, who view the United States as an occupying power. The improvement of Russia’s image and growth of anti-American sentiment has bolstered the traction of Russian disinformation in Afghanistan. Sputnik Dari boasts over 275,000 followers on Facebook, who receive multiple daily updates with stories condemning U.S. conduct in Afghanistan.

Much like Russia’s efforts to sow distrust of liberal democracy in Western societies, Moscow’s disinformation tactics in Afghanistan have been characterized by their ideological fluidity and diverse—and sometimes contradictory—array of messages. Russia has largely promoted two narratives about U.S. conduct in Afghanistan. The first is that the United States is the primary contributor to instability and extremism in Afghanistan, and the second is that the U.S. government has neocolonial ambitions in Afghanistan, which have prolonged its military presence and will be completely unmasked as soon as the war ends.

The narrative that the United States has destabilized Afghanistan through passivity toward terrorism or active support of extremist networks, such as the Islamic State, is a central theme of Russian state media coverage of Afghanistan. In an October 2017 interview with RT, former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has been Kremlin-friendly since he endorsed Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, described the Islamic State in Afghanistan as a “tool” that the United States uses to advance its broader regional goals.

In a February 2018 interview with Sputnik Dari, Ahmad Wahid Mozhda, a former mujahideen commander and Afghan political analyst, stated that many Afghans believed a “mysterious foreign hand” was supporting the Islamic State. As clarified later in the interview, this foreign hand was a direct reference to the United States. To reinforce the credibility of these assertions, Russian media outlets have highlighted the alleged U.S.-Islamic State alliance as an international phenomenon, which also seeks to undermine Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s legitimate authority and Iran’s geopolitical influence in Iraq.

Russian officials have repeatedly endorsed these allegations in public statements and interviews with Russian state media outlets. In August 2018, the Russian foreign ministry claimed that “unidentified helicopters” were delivering weapons to the Islamic State in Afghanistan. This assertion built on Sputnik’s prior interview with former Afghan Gen. Atiqullah Amarkhel, which alluded to the possibility of U.S. planes helping Islamic State fighters smuggle precious stones and narcotics from Afghanistan.

This disinformation narrative continued unabated, even as Russia offered to serve as a guarantor for a U.S.-Taliban peace agreement. In September 2019, Sergey Beseda, a senior Russian intelligence official, accused the United States of transferring Islamic State militants to northern Afghanistan.

On July 4, Russia’s special envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, claimed that U.S. collusion with Afghanistan’s narcotics trade is an “open secret” and that in Kabul “everyone is sick and tired of it and dismisses it as a given.” The regular participation of Afghan politicians who propagate anti-U.S. conspiracies, such as Karzai, in the Moscow-approved talks provides further evidence that Russia is seeking to burnish the credibility of these opinions among the Afghan population.

In addition to portraying the U.S. government as a supporter of extremism and instability on Russia’s southern flank, Russian media outlets have propagated unsubstantiated rumors about a secret U.S. neocolonial agenda in Afghanistan. In June 2017, Sputnik Dari quoted a member of the Afghan parliament from Helmand province, who said that U.S. forces were smuggling uranium from the region, instead of partaking in counterterrorism operations, and cited anonymous local residents, who accused the United States of carrying out “robbery and theft.”

In February 2018, Karzai told Sputnik that the U.S. saw “Afghanistan only as a tool for implementing their geopolitical plans in the region.” Citing Akhtar Shakh Hamdard, an Afghan political scientist, the Russian state broadcaster RIA Novosti claimed that the United States has long-term strategic plans in Afghanistan, as it allows the United States to exploit Central Asia’s mineral resources and access Iran’s untapped reserves of oil and natural gas. Although conspiracies about U.S. hegemonic ambitions in Afghanistan abound, Russian state media outlets frequently downplay China’s extractive ambitions in the region, as they highlight Beijing’s satisfaction with Russia’s security policy in Central Asia and the constructive elements of the Belt and Road Initiative.

As the U.S. military has taken steps toward a withdrawal from Afghanistan, Russian media outlets have pivoted toward stories on residual intelligence or private security personnel in the country, portraying them as a permanent occupation force. Allegations of U.S. hegemonic ambitions in Afghanistan have also surfaced along with the revelations of Russia allegedly paying bounties to the Taliban. In a Sputnik article that described the bounty scandal as RussiaGate 3.0, Mohammed Daud Miraki, an Afghan activist, was quoted as saying, “The war in Afghanistan is a milk cow for the U.S. establishment and NATO that they refused to lose.”

Putin is replicating his success in Syria in a new theater of conflict—and part of his plan is to hurt American interests once again.

Russian officials have endorsed these narratives about U.S. conduct. In March 2018, Kabulov argued that U.S. military operations in Afghanistan were part of its broader geopolitical struggle against Russia and China, and he cited U.S. efforts to encourage Afghan forces to divest from Russian weaponry as proof of a hegemonic agenda.

These allegations swiftly followed Sputnik Dari’s interview with Afghan army spokesman Gen. Dawlat Waziri, which described the replacement of Russian weapons with U.S. arms as a “crime against the Afghan army” and proof that the Afghan army was a “human shield” of the United States. The Russian foreign ministry has also accused the United States of postponing the 2019 Afghan elections in order to advance its own interests, which built on Russian state media efforts to depict the Afghan government as a U.S. puppet.

Beyond their potential threat to U.S. forces, Russian state media outlets could also bolster Moscow’s influence over postwar Afghanistan. Sputnik regularly emphasizes Russia’s willingness to invest in Afghanistan’s postwar reconstruction and highlights comments from anti-American politicians, such as Afghan Ambassador to Moscow Abdul Qayyum Kochai, who praise Moscow’s prospective peacekeeping role.

These news stories support Russia’s soft power campaign in Afghanistan, which began with the pledged construction of a $20 million Russian cultural center in 2014 and, more recently, has extended to Kremlin-sponsored educational initiatives. Moreover, the depiction of Ghani’s government as U.S.-dependent and ineffectual in Russian state media outlets strengthens his Kremlin-friendly opponents, which include anti-systemic figures, such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who is the leader of the Islamist Hezb-e Islami Gulbuddin party, and “trustworthy elements” of the Taliban.

A boost in Afghan public support for these figures and the co-option of the Taliban into a coalition with Afghanistan’s internationally recognized government would amplify Russia’s long-term leverage in Afghanistan and provide Moscow with local partners to look out for its security interests.

Moscow’s ongoing information war against U.S. forces is a threat that deserves much more attention. The United States should recognize that Russia’s disinformation is not just a threat to liberal democracy but also a prospective danger to the security of U.S. forces in war zones, such as Afghanistan.

The Trump administration’s efforts to undermine the cohesion and independence of U.S. counterweights to Russia’s disinformation campaigns, such as Voice of America, only compound the damage and should cease immediately. If U.S. officials do not address the threat posed by Russia’s information war in Afghanistan, Moscow could escalate its use of disinformation against the U.S. military in other settings, which would threaten U.S. soldiers and undermine vital local support for counterterrorism campaigns.

Samuel Ramani is a doctoral candidate in Politics and International Relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford, specializing in post-1991 Russian foreign policy. Twitter: @samramani2

How a German firm and African dictator tried to launch satellites from a jungle (The Week)

Established in 1975, OTRAG was the world’s first private space enterprise

By Ashok Warrier: Former Indian Ambassador to DRC

Few people would know that there was a time when the Central African country, known by the acronym DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo), was a testing and launching site for rockets meant to carry satellites into space.

The 1960s saw fierce competition between the US and the Soviet Union for a race into space and for landing a man on the moon. While this race was going on, there was a man in Germany, who was fuelled by the idea of being able to launch satellites at low costs and for whoever wanted to put a satellite into orbit. Lutz Tilo Kayser, who grew up playing with discarded debris from explosives of the Second World War, was thus both a visionary as well as a space mercenary of sorts. Kayser, along with a handful of German scientists, established in 1975 the first private space enterprise in the world. This was known by the name of OTRAG (Orbital Transport und Raketen Aktiengesellschaft) and was based in Stuttgart. “Not hi-tech but low cost” was the guiding theme of this company.

OTRAG, the brainchild of Kayser, was essentially set up following the decision of the German government (which had recently joined the European Space Agency) to stop financing their projects as it was seen to be in competition with the European Space Agency’s programme. The OTRAG team was adventurously innovative. They even used a Volkswagen windscreen wiper motor to control the injection of fuel into the rocket engines. The company managed to attract several European investors and the stage was set for a rocket test launch. However, what the company wanted was a site where they could test launch rockets that could carry satellites into space. A chance meeting with a German businessman involved in organising the famous ‘rumble in the jungle’ boxing match of 1974 between Mohammad Ali and George Foreman in Kinshasa in Zaire (present DRC) set the ball rolling. The businessman suggested that Zaire could be an ideal site for the team’s testing and launching facilities.

Zaire’s dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, was a huge fan of German technology. He saw immense opportunities in Zaire functioning as a springboard for rockets, which could land satellites into space. The prestige attached to being the first African country to have a rocket launched from its territory was an added and undeniable attraction. Besides, he felt, he could with this facility, be able to gain an upper hand vis a vis his inimical neighbours. Mobutu was not going to miss this opportunity, which had come knocking on his door. A contract was signed in December 1975 between the government of Zaire and OTRAG for unlimited use of 100,000 square kilometres of land in the present Katanga Province, which lies between Angola and Zambia. The contract was non-terminable till 2025.

Mobutu wanted the first satellite, unsurprisingly enough, to be an observation satellite, which could help him monitor movements on Zaire’s borders with Angola. A plateau on the land above the river Luvua was identified as the testing site. The team set to work preparing the place located in dense jungles. A civil engineering firm was commissioned to clear and level the land to allow for setting up the launch infrastructure, a runway, residential tents for the team and a dining area among other things. OTRAG even bought a couple of aircraft from the British Royal Air Force and founded an airline of their own, which operated under a Congolese flag. The team good humoredly named the tents in which they worked and lived as the Bavarian Embassy. They even managed to build a village in the vast area allotted to them. After a year-and-half of working on the rocket, they were ready on May 17, 1977, for their first rocket test launch. The launchpad was set up like a scaffolding using local wood. The launch of the 6-metre rocket over the skies of Zaire went like a dream. The launch could not have been more successful.

However, things started going wrong for OTRAG soon thereafter. The world started taking note of OTRAG’s space exploits. Both the US and the Soviet Union were concerned that OTRAG could start making rockets and launch satellites, which could threaten their own commercial interests as satellite-launching nations. They also started viewing OTRAG as a fast-emerging military threat in space, although there was never any concrete evidence of OTRAG being involved in anything of the sort. OTRAG was viewed as working for the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and there were even accusations that Germany, which was forbidden by the Brussels Treaty of 1954 to undertake any form of militarisation, was doing just that in the cover of OTRAG from the jungles of Zaire. It did not matter that OTRAG was an independent private body distinct and separate from the German State.

There were reports of the Soviets having positioned two spy satellites to monitor the activities of OTRAG. The French, who were the primary contributors to the Arianespace programme, were also concerned about the growing capabilities of OTRAG. Reports started appearing, with some of them even hinting that Germany was engaged in building a bomb to be carried and launched by cruise missiles from the Zaire facility. All this added to the tension across the borders of Zaire too. Angola was allied to the Soviet Union and OTRAG’s activities in Zaire caused a stir in that country.

OTRAG, however, continued with its work. Yet another rocket was successfully launched in May 1978. However, the third launch in June 1978 in the presence of Mobutu was a failure as the rocket nosedived soon after it was launched. This gave a further handle to the Americans, the Soviets and the French to work on Mobutu who was already under criticism for allowing the OTRAG to carry out its activities in Zaire. Mobutu told Kayser and his team that they could stay in his country but without any further rocket launches. A few months thereafter, some of the German scientists of OTRAG met with a boat accident in the Luvua river and died. This was the final nail in the coffin of OTRAG’s presence in Zaire. Kayser and his team wound up soon thereafter and left Zaire in April 1979, thus bringing the curtains down on a strange and most unlikely collaboration between a group of passionate German rocket scientists who might have been small on scale but big on self-belief, and an ambitious dictator, both of whom fell prey to the suspicions, doubts and perceptions of the Soviets, the French and the Americans.

Thus ended the tireless and improvised efforts of a group of dedicated and diligent scientists who wanted to reach for the stars by charting out an independent course. Perhaps they were ahead of their times and paid the price for being so. The world will never know what kind of satellites and for whom, Kayser’s low-cost rockets would have ended up firing into space, from the bushes of Zaire, in the heart of Africa.

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