Southern Transitional Council Seeks Leverage with Declaration of Self-Rule
Brian M. Perkins
Saudi Arabia’s attempts to extricate itself from the war in Yemen became increasingly complicated as the Riyadh Agreement all but collapsed on April 25, when the Southern Transitional Council (STC) declared a state of emergency and self-administration across the areas of southern Yemen it deems are under its control. The move followed catastrophic flooding in the port city of Aden. The declaration, which was not the STC’s first, comes after months of failures to implement the Riyadh Agreement, which sought to ease hostilities between the President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi-led government and the rival STC and to unify the STC’s allied security forces under Saudi command with forces loyal to Hadi.
The STC announced that its decision was in response to the Yemeni government’s failure to ensure basic services and protections for southerners. The council accused the government of pursing a military strategy against the STC with the aid of extremist elements. This is in indirect reference to the STC’s rival Islah party, whose members fight both within and alongside Yemeni military units loyal to Hadi (STCAden.com, May 1).
The declaration has surprisingly not drawn as harsh of a reaction from Saudi Arabia and the UAE as might have been expected, with both taking little action other than urging the STC to end the declaration and return toward implementing the Riyadh Agreement. The STC, for its part, has rejected the notion that its declaration indicates the group has given up on the agreement, noting that no progress toward its implementation had been made by the Yemeni government (Middle East Eye, May 1).
The public response to the STC’s declaration of self-rule reflects the broader divisions across southern Yemen and the disparate views citizens hold for the region’s future. Outside of the STC’s powerbase in Aden, Lahj, and Dhale, the declaration has been viewed by many as obstructionist to the process and of little consequence to the situation on the ground in governorates that are farther afield with a smaller presence of the STC’s elite forces. For instance, residents of Shabwa who support the STC noted that the declaration would have little to no effect on their daily lives, other than the potential for clashes between STC and government-aligned forces. 
The STC, however, recognizes its inability to effectively self-administer regions outside of its main powerbase. The declaration is more of a strategic power move to gain leverage against both Hadi and the Islah party than a fulsome attempt to govern southern Yemen long-term, though doing so is the ultimate goal. As noted, this is not the first time the STC has declared or threatened self-rule, and with each declaration the group has extracted concessions and consolidated its position. This carrot and stick method has so far served the STC well and is likely to be even more potent as Saudi Arabia grows increasingly weary of its misadventures in Yemen. While the STC might not be capable of governing southern Yemen at this current juncture, its declaration of self-rule is a message to the Yemeni government, Saudi Arabia, and the broader international community that it can dictate the tempo and scope of political negotiations in southern Yemen.
 Authors interview with Shabwa-based STC supporter on April 29.
Multiple Crises Unfolding in Afghanistan
Brian M. Perkins
Afghanistan is facing a major inflection point, but civilian casualties continue to mount as the country grapples with the COVID-19 outbreak, imminent U.S. troop withdrawal, and serious fissures within the Afghan government. Navigating both the peace deal with the Taliban and the U.S. troop withdrawal is daunting in itself, but doing so with a divided government amid a major public health crisis could prove to be disastrous.
The United States now has under 10,000 troops stationed in Afghanistan, just 1,400 away from the 8,600 troops stipulated in the U.S.-Taliban Peace deal. The United States has until mid-July (135 days from signing) to drawdown to the required number, but could reach that benchmark early. Despite being ahead of schedule on the first withdrawal phase, it is unclear if the complete withdrawal will occur ahead of the 14-month deadline.
The number of civilian casualties at the hands of the Taliban increased in the month following the deal’s signing in February and have since continued at a steady pace around the country, including in the capital. On April 29, a suicide bombing near an Afghan Commandos Special Unit facility in Kabul’s Rishkhor area killed three civilians and wounded eight others (Tolo News, April 29). The following day, five civilians—including women and children— were killed when their vehicle struck a roadside bomb in the Andar district of Ghazni Province (Tolo News, April 30).
Meanwhile, the country is also facing a serious political crisis as the Taliban violence continues mostly unabated and the number of COVID-19 cases rises. Political tensions between incumbent president, Ashraf Ghani, and his rival, Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah, have severely hampered the government since results of the September 19 elections indicated a victory for Ghani. The situation worsened on March 9, when Ghani took the oath of office at the same time Abdullah inaugurated himself at a parallel ceremony (Al Jazeera, March 9). Political negotiations between the two sides have obstructed government effectiveness, particularly in regard to pushing the Taliban deal forward and tackling the COVID-19 outbreak. The political impasse has also raised concerns that foreign assistance could be threatened if a suitable agreement is not met, with the EU warning that the situation and “lack of progress may negatively affect future funding for the security and development of the country” (Tolo News, April 30).
The Taliban and Afghan government have been slow to meet their requirements as laid out in the peace deal, and the COVID-19 outbreak has further complicated the process, particularly regarding prisoner releases. According to a presidential decree, 100 Taliban prisoners were expected to be released per day since the agreement, but only 500 have been released in the past 50 days. The process has been slowed by a lack of will, Taliban compliance, and the political impasse. Meanwhile, COVID-19 has also started to spread through the country’s prisons, including Kabul’s Pul-e-Chakri Prison, overwhelming the bureaucratic system as officials also move to release non-Taliban prisoners. The prison outbreaks prompted the Taliban to issue a warning indicating they would seek revenge if a single Taliban prisoner becomes infected while imprisoned (MENAFN, April 29).