Wednesday, March 27, 2019

High Representative/Vice-President Federica Mogherini visits Afghanistan

EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy/Vice-President of the European Commission, Federica Mogherini, today visited Kabul to discuss the current political situation, as well as the European Union’s initiatives to support to peace in Afghanistan.

Federica Mogherini met with the President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, together with the First Lady of Afghanistan, Rula Ghani, as well as with Chief Executive Officer, Abdullah Abdullah. During her visit, Federica Mogherini also had an exchange of views with Tadamichi Yamamoto, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General.

The visit underlined the EU's strong commitment to support an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process. The European Union has made a five-point offer to support the peace process, as outlined by High Representative Mogherini at the Geneva Ministerial Conference on Afghanistan last November: 1) helping the government to make the peace process more inclusive; 2) supporting reforms, including security sector reform; 3) providing incentives for the reintegration of ex-combatants; 4) having the EU as a guarantor of the peace process; and 5) supporting cross-border trade and infrastructure, as well as regional connectivity.

“Just a few years ago, talking about peace seemed to be completely out of the vocabulary. But today Afghanistan finds itself at a critical moment in its history. You are faced, with a unique window of opportunity to start discussing the prospects for peace in the country”, said Federica Mogherini at a joint press point with President Ghani. “The attention and the priority that the European Union has given to the Afghan people is not only something that we have consistently and generously sustained during the past years, but it is also something we are ready to continue. We will be at your side in this difficult but important journey and will, as always, do all we can to accompany the Afghan people and their democratically elected institutions at this particular moment of their history.”

In her meetings in Kabul, the High Representative stressed three conditions to make the result of any negotiation sustainable over time. First, a ceasefire agreed by the Taliban and peace talks with the Afghan government. Second, an inclusive negotiation team, with representatives of all Afghan society, including women. “It is internationally proven that any peace agreement that has been negotiated also by women has 40 percent more chance of standing the test of time, so it is in the interest of the result of the negotiations to have women at the table”, said Federica Mogherini. “Here in Afghanistan, women are a very relevant part of society. Their inclusion in any peace process is the guarantee that peace is owned and led by Afghans.” Third, she emphasised that the political, economic and social achievements of the last 18 years, in particular regarding the rights of women, girls, children and minorities, must be upheld and strengthened. - More

High Representative/Vice-President Federica Mogherini visits ...

The India-Pakistan Crisis Is Not Over - by Arif Rafiq

The India-Pakistan crisis appeared to be moving toward de-escalation on Thursday, as Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan pledged to return a captured Indian pilot to New Delhi “as a peace gesture.” Khan’s announcement was met with near unanimous praise by Pakistani parliamentarians—including those from opposition parties bitterly opposed to Khan.

But it would be a mistake to assume that the crisis is over or could not reignite in the weeks and months ahead. The United States and other world powers ought to sustain and increase their role in managing the crisis in South Asia and steering India and Pakistan toward comprehensive talks—including over the issue of Kashmir—once politically feasible.

A Tenuous De-Escalation
Following Khan’s announcement, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi boasted, “After a pilot project is completed, it can be made scalable. A pilot project has been implemented. Now a real [project] must be done. The previous one was [just] practice.”

Modi not only implied that the impending return of the pilot was an Indian victory stemming from Pakistani weakness, but he also suggested that India could repeat its February 26 intrusion into Pakistani air space and payload release (or air strike) into Pakistani territory. One could interpret Modi’s statement merely as face-saving rhetoric. His Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) faces general elections in the spring and his standing has been diminished over the past year.

But Modi’s tenure as prime minister, combined with his electoral compulsions, suggest that there is danger that he could choose to escalate once again. His tenure has been marked by risky decisions—such as the demonetization debacle and the February 26 raid—made by a kitchen cabinet that ultimately backfired.

Meanwhile, India’s acerbic news channels are pressing Modi to stay on the path of escalation. India’s top English-language news channel, Republic, which is partly-ownedby Rajeev Chandrasekhar, a BJP parliamentarian, has proclaimed that India has “brought Pakistan to its knees” and that “India’s decisive battle has begun.” - Read More
The India-Pakistan Crisis Is Not Over

One Step Closer to an Elusive Peace in Afghanistan - Ahmed Rashid

Last year, when President Donald Trump gave the go-ahead for negotiations to start between the US and the Taliban, nobody expected his patience to last very long. He could sabotage the American negotiating team at any time, many observers feared, by ordering an arbitrary pullout of US forces from Afghanistan, leaving the Afghan government vulnerable to a Taliban takeover of Kabul.

Nor was there much hope that, having decimated the State Department, Trump would ever play by normal diplomatic rules and depend on institutions like the intelligence community that does the leg-work in such negotiations, rather than his own Fox News-driven instincts. Yet Trump has surprised everyone. By appointing Zalmay Khalilzad as chief US negotiator, he chose a highly experienced, Afghan-born diplomat. Although Khalilzad was sometimes seen as a controversial figure during the Bush administrations, when he served stints as the US ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, and the United Nations, for this job he was acceptable to both Republicans and Democrats in Congress as the most qualified person from the foreign service community.

Khalilzad was granted the time and space to build up a comprehensive inter-agency team of experts, which includes representatives from the CIA to the Treasury. He also gained the surprising cooperation of the Pentagon, which has only recently shifted its position—until last year the US Defense Department still favored more aggressive military operations against the Taliban rather than engaging in peace talks.

Trump even kept his tweeting on the subject to a minimum. There were no threats or sarcastic comments about Afghanistan or the Taliban, and near-zero interference in Khalilzad’s mission. The US president’s lack of engagement with what was happening in Afghanistan has , in fact, been a boon for Khalilzad, allowing him a free hand in the negotiations. According to diplomatic sources close to the envoy, Trump has continued to show little interest in the progress of the talks with the Taliban.

Supervision of the chief negotiator’s progress has been left, instead, to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, whom some considered just as likely to undermine peace efforts. Last December, in a major speech in Brussels, Pompeo had attacked nearly every international organization working for global peace including the United Nations, the European Union, the African Union, and the World Bank. Yet even Pompeo has stayed quiet on the peace efforts in Afghanistan. - Read More

One Step Closer to an Elusive Peace in Afghanistan | by Ahmed Rashid

US efforts to rebuild Afghanistan beset by 'theft and abuse from security forces' - The Guardian

report into US efforts to rebuild Afghanistan’s war-damaged infrastructure has called for urgent action after revealing that Afghan security forces have been harassing, abusing and stealing from contractors at military bases.

Members of the Afghan national defence and security forces (ANDSF) have held workers at gunpoint and confiscated their equipment, costing the US hundreds of thousands of dollars, a US government watchdog said.

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (Sigar) reviewed three US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) contracts, collectively valued in excess of $1bn (£755m). Their findings are of concern as the US attempts to manage the cost of restructuring and compensation claims by contractors.

The review found that in one case, Afghan forces – which include the army and police – had “confiscated” more than $780,000 in contractor-owned property, forcing USACE to pay $325,000 in compensation to the firms. In a second case, USACE was unable to reclaim equipment valued at $454,900, for which they have also now received a compensation claim.

The Sigar report detailed contracted staff being subject to assault, unlawful detentions, threats and intimidation.

Between August 2011 and November 2013, USACE identified 296 serious incidents.

There were also instances in which Afghan forces shaved the heads of contractor staff for not complying with their orders to repair equipment outside the scope of the contract.

Sigar’s report made the point that despite the restructuring programme being funded and monitored by the US Senate, there is “no comprehensive mechanism for formal coalition assistance evolved to address abuse and confiscation of property”, or a method to monitor results and feedback.

The US-led multinational force in overall control, the combined security transition command Afghanistan or CSTC-A, said that, in order to address dishonesty and misconduct among the ANDSF, it had taken measures to train staff on both sides. However, it had not fined Afghan security forces for stolen or “confiscated” property or workers’ mistreatment, believing that withholding funds would “harm ANDSF forces more than it would tend to change behaviour”. - Read More

US efforts to rebuild Afghanistan beset by 'theft and abuse from ...

Monday, March 25, 2019

Afghanistan May Not Survive a U.S. Withdrawal

Before President Donald Trump recalls U.S. forces from Afghanistan, he should remember why they were sent there, eighteen years and two presidents ago.

The September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, which killed nearly three thousand, were planned in a mud-brick house near Kandahar, when mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed first sat on the dirt floor across from Osama bin Laden in 1998. The murderous plot grew in meetings in safe houses and training camps across Afghanistan. Al Qaeda was able to conspire in safety because it had the protection of the Taliban, which repeatedly denied U.S. requests to expel or extradite “Sheikh Osama.” U.S. negotiations, in both the Clinton and Bush years, often occurred in a Kandahar phone booth, as neither the Taliban foreign minister nor other senior officials had working phones in their offices. None of America’s multi-billion-dollar network of spy satellites or other signal-intelligence apparatus received any iota of warning of the atrocity to come.

If the United States were to abruptly pull out of Afghanistan, then a brutal civil war would pit Afghanistan’s outnumbered patriots against the Taliban, supported by neighboring Pakistan and from Qatar (which sheltered Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in 1996 and provided him with a well-paying, no-show government job.) After months of slaughter and cruelty, the Taliban would return to power. The sacrifices and hard-won successes of U.S. servicemen would be erased. And Taliban-ruled Afghanistan would once again provide safe haven for Al Qaeda and other extremists.

Indeed, it will be worse this time around. In the 1990s, Iran supplied most of the funding for the Northern Alliance, a collection of Afghan ethnic minorities, as a check against the power of the Taliban. This time, the mullahs in Tehran are expected to favor Taliban rule. Also, this time, ISIS will also find safe haven there. While driven from their Syrian strongholds, ISIS has established new inroads in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Indeed, ISIS has received favorable coverage in some of the Taliban’s Pakistani publications and its minor doctrinal differences with Al Qaeda do not keep it from working with them. It would not take much beyond the world’s recognition of the Taliban’s territorial sovereignty for the deadly ambitions of its allied terror groups to begin anew.

President Trump has said that U.S. withdrawal would be conditioned on security guarantees for the elected Afghan government. This is necessary but insufficient.

U.S. policymakers should study the USSR’s 1988–89 retreat from Afghanistan and America’s own 1973 withdrawal from Vietnam. Several lessons emerge: timetables for withdrawal only increase violence, as different factions jockey for power as the superpower exits. So, the United States should submit no such timetable, but tie specific increments of withdrawal to specific, irreversible actions by the other side.

Next, the United States should ensure that all stakeholders are a part of the talks, including Pakistan, China, Russia and Iran, which each border on Afghanistan (or once did) and have an interest in Afghanistan’s internal affairs. China and Russia share America’s interest in preventing Afghanistan from becoming another safe haven for radical Islamists; both have suffered terror attacks from such radicals.

Iran and Pakistan are much harder cases. While both nations would welcome America’s departure, neither is committed to Afghan independence. Each has funded proxies inside Afghanistan for decades and each, in its national constitutions, uses a nationalistic form of Islam to justify its rule at home and its actions abroad. Finally, Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI, created the Taliban in 1994 (the young Taliban leaders took no part in the anti-Soviet revolt) and continues to provide safe areas for the Taliban. Indeed, Pakistan tacitly supports a terrorist-tolerant Afghanistan since it would provide secure bases for the anti-India terrorists it also funds. When the United States left South Vietnam, it left two powerful enemies, North Vietnam and China, on its abandoned ally’s doorstep. It would be foolish to repeat this mistake in Afghanistan, with respect to Pakistan and Iran.- Read More
Afghanistan May Not Survive a U.S. Withdrawal

Bill Gates urges Afghanistan and Pakistan to 'get to zero' in polio fight

LONDON (Reuters) - Local Afghan Taliban leaders are hindering global efforts to end polio, but Afghanistan and Pakistan must continue their fight to “get to zero” cases, the philanthropist Bill Gates said on Monday.

In a telephone interview with Reuters, Gates was optimistic about the global plan to eradicate the paralyzing viral disease, but said Afghanistan’s conflict and power struggles hamper progress.

“The big issue there is always with the Taliban,” said Gates, whose multi-billion dollar philanthropic Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is one of the biggest funders of the polio eradication campaign.

Polio is a virus that spreads in areas with poor sanitation. It attacks the nervous system and can cause irreversible paralysis within hours of infection. Children under five are the most vulnerable, but polio can be prevented with vaccination.

Success in reducing case numbers worldwide has been largely due to intense national and regional immunization campaigns in babies and children.

Latest Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) figures show that worldwide, there were 33 cases of polio in 2018 and six so far in 2019 - 16 of them in Pakistan and 23 in Afghanistan. These two, plus Nigeria, are the last remaining countries where the disease is endemic. - Read More
Bill Gates urges Afghanistan and Pakistan to 'get to zero' in polio fight

Study finds chronic fatigue clues in overactive immune response
Cancer deaths rise to 9.6 million as populations grow and age

Mueller Report Doesn't Find Russian Collusion, But Can't 'Exonerate' On Obstruction

Special counsel Robert Mueller did not find evidence that President Trump's campaign conspired with Russia to influence the 2016 election, according to a summary of findings submitted to Congress by Attorney General William Barr.

"The Special Counsel's investigation did not find that the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it conspired or coordinated with Russia in its efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election," Barr wrote in a letter to leaders of the House and Senate judiciary committees on Sunday afternoon.

That was despite "multiple offers from Russian-affiliated individuals to assist the Trump campaign," he wrote.

However, Mueller's investigation did not take a position on whether Trump obstructed justice by trying to frustrate the ongoing investigation.

"[W]hile this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him," Barr quotes from Mueller's report.

The attorney general wrote that he and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had concluded that the findings of the special counsel were "not sufficient to establish that the president committed an obstruction-of-justice offense."

The Justice Department leaders reached that conclusion, Barr wrote, without regard to the "constitutional considerations" that surround whether the department can seek an indictment of a sitting president.

White House exults
Trump talked with reporters as he prepared to return from Florida to the White House, calling the investigation "an illegal take-down that failed." - Read More

Mueller Report Doesn't Find Russian Collusion, But Can't 'Exonerate' On Obstruction

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Robert Mueller Submits Report On Russia Investigation To Attorney General

Attorney General William Barr received a report on Friday by special counsel Robert Mueller about the findings from Mueller's investigation into the Russian attack on the 2016 presidential election.

Barr notified congressional leaders in a letter that said he is "reviewing the report and anticipate that I may be in a position to advise you of the special counsel's principal conclusions as soon as this weekend."

Mueller is not recommending any more indictments, a senior Justice Department official told reporters.

The investigations by Congress and other federal and state authorities into other aspects of Trump's 2016 campaign and business will continue. So it isn't clear whether they may lead to criminal charges separate from the work by Mueller that has ended.

As to Friday's report, Barr wrote to congressional leaders that he intends to consult with Mueller and with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein "to determine what other information from the report can be released to Congress and the public consistent with the law."

As to Friday's report, Barr wrote to congressional leaders that he intends to consult with Mueller and with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein "to determine what other information from the report can be released to Congress and the public consistent with the law."

A message from Mueller was delivered early in the afternoon to Rosenstein and given "within minutes" to Barr, a Justice Department spokeswoman said.

Officials would not characterize the length of Mueller's report but would say it is "comprehensive." -  More

Robert Mueller Submits Report On Russia Investigation To Attorney General

READ: Attorney General Barr's Letter On Mueller Report

New Zealand Listens To Muslim Prayers A Week After Mosque Shootings

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and other New Zealanders packed a public park in Christchurch on Friday to listen to the Muslim call to prayer one week after a gunman attacked two mosques, killing 50 people.

The call to prayer was broadcast nationwide and was followed by two minutes of silence.

Ardern led mourners at Hagley Park adjacent to the Al Noor Mosque where most of the victims were slain. The mosque itself remains closed for renovations but is scheduled to reopen next week.

"New Zealand mourns with you, we are one," Ardern told the gathering.

"This terrorist sought to tear our nation apart with an evil ideology ... but we have shown that New Zealand is unbreakable," the imam of the Al Noor mosque, Gamal Fouda, said in thanking New Zealanders for their support and compassion since the attacks. "We are brokenhearted, but we are not broken."

The one-week landmark came amid burials of victims and as Ardern's government moved swiftly to try to prevent another mass shooting.

"Since Friday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has worked tirelessly to coordinate a government effort to overhaul New Zealand's gun laws," NPR's Rob Schmitz reported on All Things Considered.

"In the span of five days, her coalition government has formulated a ban on all the semi-automatic weapons that were used in the Christchurch attack.

According to the law, New Zealanders are required to register online to set up a time to hand in their guns to police," he added.

Ardern said the government won't penalize anyone turning in guns within a set time frame, NPR's Barbara Campbell reported.

"She said the government will create a buy-back program to pay owners 'fair and reasonable compensation,' which she estimated could cost the country between $100 million and $200 million. She said the guns will eventually be destroyed," Campbell added.

Ardern wore a headscarf, as did many other non-Muslim women at the event. The prime minister has won widespread praise for donning a black scarf when she met with families of the shooting victims soon after the attacks. Since then, other non-Muslim women in New Zealand have worn headscarves in a sign of support and solidarity. - Read More

New Zealand Listens To Muslim Prayers A Week After Mosque Shootings

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Trump will not accept 'bad deal' on Afghanistan: White House - moneycontrol

Donald Trump has prioritised peace efforts in Afghanistan and his special envoy has initiated direct talks with the Taliban, but the US President will not accept a "bad deal" on efforts to end America's longest war, the White House has said.

According to a senior Trump administration official, America has "contingency" plans, which might involve "military options" if the peace talks fail to yield desired results.

As part of his efforts to garner international support for ongoing peace talks with the Taliban, US special envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad will hold talks with counterparts from Russia, China and the European Union on Thursday and Friday.

Khalilzad has held three round of talks with the Afghan Taliban in order to reach a settlement that would allow the US to withdraw its army and end the 17-year-old Afghan war, America's longest.

"We are certainly prioritising peace efforts in Afghanistan. But as with all negotiations that involve vital US national security interests, we have contingency plans. The president has indicated he hopes for the best in these peace talks, but he will also not accept a bad deal," the official told reporters at the White House on Wednesday.

The official explained that the US was hoping for the success with the peace process.

"But it's not the only route that we are looking at in terms of protecting vital US national security interests in Afghanistan," the official said.

The contingencies being talked about might involve "military options", the official said.

Noting that the US still faces terrorist threats in Afghanistan, the official said America will continue to do what is necessary to protect its interests. - Read More

Trump will not accept 'bad deal' on Afghanistan: White House ...

Countries With the Best Quality of Life | US News Best Countries - USNews

Beyond the essential ideas of broad access to food and housing, to quality education and health care, to employment that will sustain us, quality of life may also include intangibles such as job security, political stability, individual freedom and environmental quality.

What social scientists do agree on is that material wealth is not the most important factor in assessing a life lived well. The results of the Quality of Life sub-ranking survey reflect that sensibility.

The 2019 Best Countries rankings, formed in partnership with BAV Group, a unit of global marketing communications company VMLY&R, and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, are based on a study that surveyed more than 20,000 global citizens from four regions to assess perceptions of 80 countries on 75 different metrics. The Quality of Life subranking is based on an equally weighted average of scores from nine country attributes that relate to quality of life in a country: affordable, a good job market, economically stable, family friendly, income equality, politically stable, safe, well-developed public education system and well-developed public health system. The Quality of Life subranking score had a 17 percent weight in the overall Best Countries ranking.

People consistently view a small group of nations as best providing for their citizens. For the fourth consecutive year, Canada ranks No. 1 overall for providing a good quality of life. Survey respondents view the North American country as No. 1 for both being politically stable and having a well-developed public education system, and No. 2 for having a good job market, a perception supported by independent research. The North American country is seen as possessing the fifth best well-developed public health care system. In fact, Canada is rated in the top 10 in all but one of the nine attributes, affordability, where Asian countries dominate.

Seven European countries are ranked in the top 10, and 13 from the continent rank in the top 20. SwedenDenmark and Norway immediately follow Canada, with SwitzerlandFinlandAustraliathe Netherlands, New Zealand and Germany also finishing in the top 10.

Countries perceived to provide a lower quality of life perform most poorly in areas concerning personal safety and economic opportunity. Iraq, followed by IranLebanonJordan, and Angola are at the bottom of the quality of life ranking. Iraq finishes last in the survey for being friendly to families.

For the second year in a row, the United States ranks No. 17 overall by survey respondents for providing a good quality of life. Its highest ranking is for its job market, where it ranks first. Its lowest ranking came in affordability, where survey responses placed it No. 56. - Read More

Countries With the Best Quality of Life | US News Best Countries

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Christchurch shootings: 49 dead in New Zealand mosque attacks - BBC

Forty-nine people have been killed and 48 wounded in shootings at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in the nation's deadliest attack.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern described it as a terrorist attack and one of New Zealand's "darkest days".

A gunman identifying himself as an Australian live-streamed the rampage at Al Noor mosque to Facebook. He had espoused racist, anti-immigrant views.

Police say a man in his late 20s has been arrested and charged with murder.

Two other men and one woman were also detained.

No names have been made public. Firearms and explosive devices were recovered, Police Commissioner Mike Bush said.

The gunman live-streaming the attack from a head-mounted camera said he was a 28-year-old Australian called Brenton Tarrant. The footage showed him firing at men, women and children from close range inside the Al Noor mosque.

Facebook said it had removed the suspect's Facebook and Instagram accounts and was working to remove any copies of the footage. The live-stream of the attack lasted for 17 minutes.

One unnamed survivor told TV New Zealand that he had seen the gunman shoot a man in the chest. The attacker reportedly targeted the men's prayer room in the mosque, then moved to the women's room.

The suspect who was charged appeared to have published a document online outlining his intentions as well as details about the plan for the attack. He is due in court on Saturday.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison described the man as an "extremist, right-wing" terrorist. New Zealand Police Commissioner Bush confirmed that the man had not been known in advance to either New Zealand or Australian security services.

A gunman drove to the front door, entered and fired indiscriminately for about five minutes.

According to the latest census figures, Muslims make up about 1.1% of New Zealand's population of 4.25 million. - Read More

Christchurch shootings: 49 dead in New Zealand mosque ... - BBC