Monday, February 29, 2016

Pakistan not to blame for Afghan troubles, official says on U.S. visit

Pakistan should not be blamed for carrying out a "duplicitous policy" or for the problems of Afghanistan, a senior Pakistan official said on Monday at the start of talks in the United States.

U.S. lawmakers have expressed concern about a possible sale of F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan because of its impact on relations with India and Pakistan's policies in Afghanistan, but national security adviser Sartaj Aziz said the sale would help stability in the region.

"We are blamed (for) pursuing a duplicitous policy," Aziz said to reporters and U.S. and Pakistani officials before the meetings in Washington began.

"Regrettably there is a tendency to blame Pakistan, in (a) somewhat simplistic fashion for most of the difficulties and challenges that engage Afghanistan," Aziz said.

The U.S. government announced on Feb. 12 that it had approved the sale to Pakistan of up to eight additional F-16 fighter jets, and radar and other equipment in a deal valued at $699 million.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker told Secretary of State John Kerry in a letter that he was concerned about Pakistan's ties to the Haqqani network, a militant group that U.S. officials have said is behind attacks in Afghanistan.

U.S. lawmakers have until March 12 to block the sale. Such action is rare since deals are usually well vetted before any formal notification, and it remained unclear if lawmakers would thwart the agreement.

Senator John McCain of Arizona, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, urged the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to conduct a hearing on the possible sale. - Read More at the Reuters

Pakistan not to blame for Afghan troubles, official says on U.S. visit

Sunday, February 28, 2016

A pair of suicide bombings kills 25 people in Afghanistan - latimes

Two suicide bombings Saturday left at least 25 people dead and dozens more injured in eastern Afghanistan.  

At least 13 people were killed and 37 injured in the attack, the United Nations said. - Read More 
A pair of suicide bombings kills 25 people in Afghanistan

As Europe's migrant crisis drags on, thousands languish in Greece's parks

Oscars 2016 live updates: 'Spotlight' wins best picture, DiCaprio gets his Oscar, 'Mad Max' cleans up - latimes

At the 88th Academy Awards, "Spotlight," the film about the Boston Globe's investigation into priest abuse, won for best picture, taking home its second award of the night. Leonardo DiCaprio, heavily favored to win for lead actor, was not disappointed in his sixth chance to take home an Oscar. His director, Alejandro G. Iñárritu, had just gotten his second directing win in a row for "The Revenant." The film came into the night with the most nominations at 12 and won three. - Read More 

Oscars 2016 live updates: 'Spotlight' wins best picture, DiCaprio gets his Oscar, 'Mad Max' cleans up - More

Oscars 2016 - Los Angeles Times

OSCARS 2016: Full coverage | List of winners/nominees | #OscarsSoWhite controversy

Chris Rock was right, this year the Oscars really were a little different

Oscars 2016: Live updates from the 88th Academy Awards - latimes

The 88th Academy Awards are here! Join us for live coverage of the 2016 Oscars as we report from the red carpet and ceremony, hosted by Chris Rock. The leader of the pack in nominations is "The Revenant" with 12 nominations, including best picture and acting nominations for both Leonardo DiCaprio... - Read More at the latimes

Oscars 2016: Live updates from the 88th Academy Awards

Zuckerberg on refugee crisis: 'Hate speech has no place on Facebook'

:  Speaking in Berlin, Facebook boss calls Germany’s handling of European refugee crisis ‘inspiring’ and says site must do more to tackle anti-migrant hate speech

Mark Zuckerberg conceded Friday that Facebook didn’t do enough until recently to police hate speech on the social media site in Germany, but said that it has made progress and has heard the message “loud and clear”.

German authorities, concerned about racist abuse being posted on Facebook and other social networks as the country deals with an influx of hundreds of thousands of migrants, have been pressing social media sites for months to crack down.

Facebook CEO Zuckerberg talked personally about the issue in September with German chancellorAngela Merkel, and met her chief of staff during a visit to Germany this week. The Merkel meeting “really highlighted how much more we needed to do in this country,” he said at a town hall event in Berlin.

“Hate speech has no place on Facebook and in our community,” he said. “Until recently in GermanyI don’t think we were doing a good enough job, and I think we will continue needing to do a better and better job.”

Zuckerberg pointed to efforts including funding a team to work with police to combat hate speech on Facebook. He said that learning more about German law has led the company to expand its view of “protected groups” there, and “to now include hate speech against migrants as an important part of what we just now have no tolerance for.”

“There’s still work to do,” he said. “We want to do that, but I think we hear the message loud and clear and we’re committed to doing better.”

Zuckerberg offered praise for Germany’s approach to Europe’s refugee crisis. Merkel so far has maintained an open-door policy for refugees, seeking an elusive diplomatic solution to reduce an influx that has prompted an increasing number of countries to impose national restrictions. - Read More at the Guardian
Zuckerberg on refugee crisis: 'Hate speech has no place on Facebook'

Facebook's Zuckerberg to stamp out hate speech in Germany | Germany | DW.COM | 26.02.2016 - Deutsche Welle

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Dozens killed, wounded in Afghanistan suicide attacks

A Taliban suicide bomber blew himself up near the Afghan defense ministry in Kabul on Saturday, causing heavy casualties just hours after an attack in the eastern province of Kunar killed 13 people and put prospects for new peace talks in doubt.

The attack in Kabul, which occurred as defense ministry workers were leaving their offices, killed as many as 12 people and wounded eight, according to a ministry statement, although Kabul police said nine people had been killed and 13 wounded.

Witnesses at the scene, where a large plume of smoke spiraled into the sky, said they had seen a number of bodies on the ground. The area was sealed off as police and army vehicles surrounded the blast site. - Read More at the Reuters

Dozens killed, wounded in Afghanistan suicide attacks

As Europe's migrant crisis drags on, thousands languish in Greece's parks

A devastating refugee bottleneck has left thousands of men, women and children languishing on blankets and cardboard in public parks in Greece and has brought diplomatic tensions in Europe to new highs.

The new phase of Europe’s migrant crisis emerged in recent days after some Balkan nations began to impose their own border controls in the face of continued inaction by the European Union.

EU ministers gathered in Brussels on Thursday to discuss how each country was responding to the crisis and attempted to forge a cohesive path forward.

But the lack of unified action has exacerbated existing divisions between member states and threatens to do irreparable damage to the future cohesiveness of the 28-member bloc.

“Right now the unity of the union and lives, human lives, are at stake,” said European Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos, who is from Greece, as he entered the Brussels meeting. “This is a moment of great responsibility.”

Afghan migrants are the main casualty of the new border controls.

Macedonia, bordering Greece and used as a pathway to Northern Europe, declared Sunday that it would allow only refugees from Iraq and Syria to pass through.

At least 5,000 refugees from Afghanistan have become stuck at the border and at least 2,000 were put on buses bound for Athens.

As European countries have been under more pressure to accept Iraqi and Syrian refugees because of the conflict involving Islamic State, some governments have begun to classify people from other countries — including Afghans, who make up one-third of asylum seekers in Europe — as economic migrants, meaning they cannot gain political asylum.

Afghans say that they are fleeing violence in their country and that the European policies are discriminatory. - Read More at the latimes

As Europe's migrant crisis drags on, thousands languish in Greece's parks

Friday, February 26, 2016

14 Years Later, What Was Liberated in Afghanistan? - Tom Engelhardt

Cross-posted with
In October 2001, the U.S. launched its invasion of Afghanistan largely through proxy Afghan fighters with the help of Special Operations forces, American air power, and CIA dollars. The results were swift and stunning. The Taliban was whipped, a new government headed by Hamid Karzai soon installed in Kabul, and the country declared "liberated."

More than 14 years later, how'd it go? What's "liberated" Afghanistan like and, if you were making a list, what would be the accomplishments of Washington all these years later? 

Hmm... at this very moment, according to the latest reports, the Taliban control more territory than at any moment since December 2001. Meanwhile, the Afghan security forces that the U.S. built up and funded to the tune of more than $65 billionare experiencing "unsustainable" casualties, their ranks evidently filled with "ghost" soldiers and policemen -- up to 40% in some places -- whose salaries, often paid by the U.S., are being pocketed by their commanders and other officials. In 2015, according to the U.N., Afghan civilian casualties were, for the seventh year in a row, atrecord levels. Add to all this the fact that American soldiers, their "combat mission"officially concluded in 2014, are now being sent by the hundreds back into the fray (along with the U.S. Air Force) to support hard-pressed Afghan troops in a situation which seems to be fast "deteriorating."

Oh, and economically speaking, how did the "reconstruction" of the country work out, given that Washington pumped more money (in real dollars) into Afghanistan in these years than it did into the rebuilding of Western Europe after World War II? Leaving aside the pit of official corruption into which many of those dollars disappeared, the country is today hemorrhaging desperate young people who can't find jobs or make a living and now constitute what may be the second largest contingent of refugees heading for Europe.

As for that list of Washington's accomplishments, it might be accurate to say that only one thing was "liberated" in Afghanistan over the last 14-plus years and that was, as Alfred McCoy points out in "How a Pink Flower Defeated the World's Sole Superpower," the opium poppy. It might also be said that, with the opium trade now fully embedded in both the operations of the Afghan government and of the Taliban, Washington's single and singular accomplishment in all its years there has been to oversee the country's transformation into the planet's number one narco-state. McCoy, who began his career in the Vietnam War era by writing The Politics of Heroin, a now-classic book on the CIA and the heroin trade (that the Agency tried to suppress) and who has written on the subject of drugs and Afghanistan before for this site, now offers a truly monumental look at opium and the U.S. from the moment this country's first Afghan War began in 1979 to late last night. - Read More at the Huffingtonpost

14 Years Later, What Was Liberated in Afghanistan?

The least useful passport to carry around the world? Afghanistan's

In many ways, the luck of where you are born dictates the course of your life: Some passports are simply more powerful than others.

A recently updated index from Henley & Partners, a London-based consulting firm that specializes in citizenship services, attempts to quantify the power of passports, judging the top passports in the world by the amount of visa-free travel they entitle their owner to. For 2016, the index found that Germans held the most powerful passports in the world for the third year in a row, closely followed by a slew of other European nations and the United States, Japan and Canada.

The least powerful passport listed? Afghanistan.

In fact, in the 11 years that Henley & Partners has been ranking the power of passports from recognized nations, Afghan passports have come in last seven times — every year since 2010. The only countries that have ever placed below it are South Sudan and the Palestinian territories — one is among the youngest sovereign states in the world, and the other is diplomatically recognized by few countries in the West.

But while the Afghan passport is perhaps the least useful in the world, for Afghan citizens it is usually all they have.

Last summer, as the security situation in the country worsened, many Afghans headed to the country's lone passport office in Kabul in a bid to prepare for a journey abroad. Australia's ABC News reported that some Afghans were camping outside the passport office overnight to get their documents, with the office overwhelmed as applications skyrocketed. "If you come after 5 a.m., you have no chance to file your application," one man told ABC (the office later bought some new passport printing machines to help with the surge in demand).

Many of those who get their passports will try to make it to Europe, traveling along a notorious migrant route that goes via Turkey and has become known as the "Black Route." After Syrians, Afghans are among the most common nationalities seen among the wave of refugees reaching Europe. But they face an unpredictable response from authorities — unlike Syrians or Iraqis, they are often not granted refugee status and are forced to return home.

The flight to Europe is just the latest factor in Afghanistan's refugee crisis, which can be traced back to the 1980s when about 5 million Afghans fled the war that followed the Soviet invasion. Most headed to Iran and Pakistan, where many remain. Decades of instability and conflict have left many unable to return home, and many who have remained in the country have lost hope that things will get better. The problems Afghan citizens face has led to a booming demand for fake passports from other nations, such as Syria. - Read More at the stripes

The least useful passport to carry around the world? Afghanistan's

This is the least useful passport to carry around the world ...- Washingtonpost

Tech giants rally behind Apple in FBI fight

Major tech companies including Microsoft, Yahoo, Twitter and Facebook are coming to Apple’s aid in what could be a landmark legal battle against the FBI. 

The companies are preparing to file friend-of-the-court briefs in the case, which they have described as a line in the sand against the U.S. government.

On Thursday, Microsoft president Brad Smith said Congress should decide the scope of American law enforcement powers — not a federal court.

"The real concern here is actually the law and the implications for the future," he said, pledging to file a brief in the case

Representatives for Yahoo and Facbook confirmed to The Hill that their companies would also file. A Twitter spokesman confirmed the plans publicly. Google, Amazon and other major players in the industry are all reportedly planning to follow suit.

The flood of legal support mirrors public comments made by many tech leaders in recent days, since a magistrate judge in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California last week demanded that Apple comply with the FBI’s demand to build new software bypassing security mechanisms on an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino, Calif., shooters. 

Almost uniformly, tech leaders claimed that the FBI was over-reaching on its demand, creating a dangerous precedent that could threaten everyone’s privacy and digital security in the future.

Microsoft founder Bill Gates, the most prominent tech leader to appear to break with the pack, walked back his initial comments that seemed to question Apple’s stance. Smith’s comments Thursday made clear that Gates’ company is firmly on Apple’s side.

Companies have until March 3 to file their supporting briefs, formally known as amicus briefs. - Read More at thehill

Tech giants rally behind Apple in FBI fight

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Migrants find doors slamming shut across Europe

— Nations along Europe’s refugee route are taking the boldest steps yet to clamp down on migrant flows, trapping thousands of asylum seekers and potentially blocking countless war-weary families from finding sanctuary in the West.

The crackdown in recent days, aid groups say, comes at the worst possible time — just as new arrivals are rapidly increasing and the majority of migrants, once single men, are now women and children. An even larger surge from the Middle East and beyond is expected in the coming weeks, with tens of thousands more migrants set to land in Greece and start the long trek northwest to Europe’s core.

But crisis-weary countries from Austria to Macedonia are now moving to bar the doors. Since Sunday, Macedonia and Serbia, for instance, have blocked passage to virtually all Afghans — a group accounting for roughly a third of all migrants. Even many Syrians and Iraqis without proper documentation are being turned away, aid groups and U.N. officials say, leaving a quickly increasing number of desperate asylum seekers stranded in nearly bankrupt Greece.

There were other signs that the main route traversed by more than 1 million migrants last year was breaking down, with aid groups saying Croatia and Slovenia are also refusing entry to more asylum seekers. Slovenia’s parliament voted late Monday to dispatch the army for border control. And in yet another blow to the cherished ideal of free movement in Europe, Belgium said Tuesday that it would set up border controls on its frontier with France to block migrants recently cleared from a sprawling camp in Calais from entering its territory.

Afghans, meanwhile, were being stranded at various points along the 1,000-mile route from Athens to Vienna, as observers warned of an impending humanitarian crisis that could rival the peak of Europe’s refugee emergency this past fall.
The situation isn’t good for us; there are no proper bathrooms or medical care. It’s very cold,” said Teimoorshah Yousefi, 40, one of 600 Afghans stranded at a northern Macedonian border crossing this week. He, along with his wife and two sons, ages 10 and 13, were being refused entry by Serbia. The family, he said, was getting frantic.

On Tuesday, frustrated Greek police cleared hundreds of protesting Afghans from railroad tracks where they were staging a sit-in. In videos and photos, ­Afghan children held signs begging Macedonian authorities to “please help us cross border.” - Read More at the washingtonpost 

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Swedish Aid Group Seeks Inquiry Into Afghan Hospital Raid

KABUL, Afghanistan — A Swedish aid group has demanded an independent investigation of a raid on a hospital in Afghanistan last week in which it said that three people, including a boy, were summarily executed by Afghan forces who were accompanied by NATO troops.

Jorgen Holmstrom, country director of the charity, the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan, on Wednesday called for the United States-led NATO military command and the Afghan government to provide “a detailed explanation of the incident.” The raid began late on Feb. 17 at a hospital funded by the Swedish committee in troubled Wardak Province, southwest of Kabul.

The raid, in which hospital staff members were “arrested and beaten,” Mr. Holmstrom said in a statement, was “a gross violation of humanitarian principles and the Geneva Convention, which states that all parties to a conflict must respect medical facilities.” 

“They were yelling at us that ‘You are serving the Taliban!’ ” Dr. Wahidullah said. “I replied that this is a hospital. We provide services and medical assistance to everyone, ordinary citizens and pro-Taliban or government members alike.”- Read More at the nytimes

Swedish Aid Group Seeks Inquiry Into Afghan Hospital Raid

Apple Is Said to Be Working on Tougher Security for iPhones - nytimes

WASHINGTON — Apple engineers have begun developing new security measures that would make it impossible for the government to break into a locked iPhone using methods similar to those now at the center of a court fight in California, according to people close to the company and security experts.

If Apple succeeds in upgrading its security — and experts say it almost surely will — the company will create a significant technical challenge for law enforcement agencies, even if the Obama administration wins its fight over access to data stored on an iPhone used by one of the killers in last year’s San Bernardino, Calif., rampage. If the Federal Bureau of Investigation wanted to get into a phone in the future, it would need a new way to do so. That would most likely prompt a new cycle of court fights and, yet again, more technical fixes by Apple.

The only way out of this scenario, experts say, is for Congress to get involved. Federal wiretapping laws require traditional phone carriers to make their data accessible to law enforcement agencies. But tech companies like Apple and Google are not covered, and they have strongly resisted legislation that would place similar requirements on them.

“We are in for an arms race unless and until Congress decides to clarify who has what obligations in situations like this,” said Benjamin Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

For Apple, security is also a global marketing strategy. New security measures would not only help the company in its fight with the government, but also reassure investors and customers.

The company first raised the prospect of a security update last week in a phone call with reporters, who asked why the company would allow firmware — the software at the heart of the iPhone — to be modified without requiring a user password.

One senior executive, speaking on the condition of anonymity, replied that it was safe to bet that security would continue to improve. Separately, a person close to the company, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, confirmed this week that Apple engineers had begun work on a solution even before the San Bernardino attack. A company spokeswoman declined to comment on what she called rumors and speculation.

But there is a catch. Each iPhone has a built-in troubleshooting system that lets the company update the system software without the need for a user to enter a passcode. Apple designed that feature to make it easier to repair malfunctioning phones.

In the San Bernardino case, the F.B.I. wants to exploit that troubleshooting system by forcing Apple to write and install new software that strips away several security features, making it much easier for the government to hack into the phone. The phone in that case is an old model, but experts and former Apple employees say that a similar approach could also be used to alter software on newer phones. That is the vulnerability Apple is working to fix. - Read More at the NYT

Apple Has Gotten Federal Orders To Help Unlock At Least 13 Devices - Bill Chappell

While the dispute over cracking into an iPhone used by the San Bernardino shooter is at the center of a legal case between Apple and the FBI, the company recently told a federal court that it has received — and resisted — similar orders to help unlock iPhones and an iPad in recent months.

That's according to unsealed court documents in which Apple says that since early October, it has received orders to access data on 12 devices, from an iPhone 3 to two iPhone 6 Plus models. In the documents, the Department of Justice says the list is correct — and adds that it found "at least one additional All Writs Act order" for obtaining information from an iPhone.

News of the court filings comes ahead of Friday's deadline for Apple to formally respond to a federal court order in the San Bernardino investigation. Wednesday, Theodore J. Boutrous Jr., a prominent First Amendment lawyer who is a lead attorney for Apple in the case, told The Associated Press that the company will tell the judge that the issue should be decided by Congress, not by the courts.

"The FBI is relying on a law called the All Writs Act from 1789 that's been used to compel companies to assist law enforcement in investigations," NPR's Alina Selyukh reports for our Newscast unit. "And Boutrous told the AP that Apple also plans to argue that that law has never been used to require a company to write software."

In the court document, Apple says the requests for it to help get inside the devices came from U.S. attorneys' offices in a range of districts, including New York, Illinois, Massachusetts and California. The company has said that complying with such orders would require it to create a software tool that could make millions of iPhones vulnerable to invasions of users' privacy.

An attorney for the tech company, Marc Zwillinger, submitted the list of such government orders on Feb. 17. It was in response to a request from a federal court in New York that was weighing a similar dispute over an iPhone in a drug case. The government responded on Monday, and Apple's list was unsealed Tuesday. - Read More at the Apple

Apple Has Gotten Federal Orders To Help Unlock At Least 13 Devices

Germany deports Afghan refugees in effort to deter new arrivals

Germany's interior minister has confirmed that the country has flown refugees back to Afghanistan. The move comes as Berlin seeks to stem the flow of asylum seekers into the country.
The head of the Interior Ministry said on Wednesday that Berlin had sent a planeload of Afghan refugees back to their native country, emphasizing that they "had no prospects to stay in Germany."

Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere confirmed that the 125 refugees had landed in Kabul and would receive some financial support.

"The voluntary return and - in case of need - the financial support is of great importance," he said. "It contributes to the important task of rebuilding Afghanistan."

Germany has been urging people in the war-torn central Asian country to remain there in an effort to stem the flow of migrants that has put a heavy burden on Berlin for months. De Maiziere said it was important for Germany to "help people help themselves" in economically, politically and socially devastated countries. He added that such work would be key to solving the refugee crisis. Some 1.1 million people sought refuge in Germany in 2015. 

Meanwhile, refugee organizations have condemned the move to deport refugees back to their homelands, noting the often fragile security situations in these countries.- Read More 

Germany deports Afghan refugees in effort to deter new arrivals Deutsche Welle

Trump wins Nevada caucuses - politico

His third consecutive victory in early-state contests further solidifies his standing as the front-runner for the GOP nomination.

Donald Trump trounced his rivals in the Nevada caucuses on Tuesday, notching his third consecutive victory and giving the Manhattan mogul even more momentum heading into Super Tuesday next week, when voters in a dozen states will cast their ballots.

Trump’s decisive win, which the Associated Press announced immediately after polls closed, was propelled by an electorate even more enraged than the ones that had swept him to wins in New Hampshire and South Carolina, and a second-place showing in Iowa.

"We love Nevada. We love Nevada,” Trump declared in his victory speech. "You're going to be proud of your president and you're going to be even prouder of your country."

For the first time in the 2016 primary season, media entrance polls showed that a majority of voters, 57 percent of Nevada caucus-goers, said they were "angry" with the federal government.

And, as significantly, they want to bring in an outsider to fix it. More than three in five caucus-goers said they favor someone from outside the political establishment rather than a candidate with political experience as president.

It all added up to Trump’s biggest night yet. - Read more

Trump wins Nevada caucuses