US Marines return to Afghanistan’s volatile Helmand

(AFP)
Updated 29 April 2017
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US Marines return to Afghanistan’s volatile Helmand

AFGHANISTAN: US Marines returned to Afghanistan’s volatile Helmand Saturday, where American troops faced heated fighting until NATO’s combat mission ended in 2014, in the latest sign foreign forces are being increasingly drawn back into the conflict.
The deployment of some 300 Marines to the poppy-growing southern province, first announced in January, came one day after the resurgent Taliban announced the launch of their “spring offensive,” and as the Trump administration seeks to craft a new strategy in Afghanistan.
Commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan General John Nicholson attended a handover ceremony marking the return of the prestigious force, the Marines first to be deployed in Afghanistan since 2014, an AFP photographer said.
Part of a troop rotation, they will arrive in stages, eventually numbering some 300 who will take part in NATO’s train, assist and advise mission.
Helmand for years was the centerpiece of the US and British military intervention in Afghanistan — only for it to slip deeper into a quagmire of instability.
The militants effectively control or contest 10 of Helmand’s 14 districts, blighted by a huge opium harvest that helps fund the insurgency.
Around 30,000 people fled fighting in the province in 2016, mostly fleeing to provincial capital Lashkar Gah, with the city at times practically besieged. The roads from neighboring districts are heavily mined by the insurgents.
The US has around 8,400 troops in Afghanistan with about another 5,000 from NATO allies. Nicholson has called for a few thousand more to help break the stalemate against the insurgents.
Pentagon chief Jim Mattis warned of “another tough year” in Afghanistan when he visited Kabul this week as part of consultations on the Trump administration’s review of Afghan policy.
Mirza Mohammad Yarmand, a retired Afghan general based in Kabul, was optimistic.
“If the Afghan forces and the US Marines jointly fight the phenomenon of the terrorism in southern Helmand, we will have tangible results,” he told AFP.


Most US forces in Afghanistan are taking part in NATO’s training mission, seeking to boost embattled Afghan forces who have been straining to beat back the militants since international forces ended their combat mission in 2014.
Afghanistan has seen intensified Taliban attacks across the country, leaving Afghan forces — already beset by killings, desertions, and vacuums in leadership and morale — stretched on multiple fronts.
They have faced soaring casualties, up 35 percent in 2016 with 6,800 soldiers and police killed, according to a US watchdog.
Last week the Taliban delivered a stinging blow, with militants dressed in Afghan army uniforms slaughtering at least 135 young recruits at a base near northern Mazar-i-Sharif city, according to official figures — though multiple sources have said the death toll is much higher.
The attack is believed to be the deadliest by the Taliban on a military target since they were driven from power in 2001. The group vowed more in the statement announcing their so-called “spring offensive” Friday.
With more than one third of Afghanistan outside of government control, civilians also continue to bear a heavy brunt, with thousands killed and wounded each year. Children are paying an increasingly disproportionate price, according to UN figures.
Afghanistan is by far the world’s largest opium producer, driven largely by growth in Helmand. The UN estimates 2016 production at 4,800 to 6,000 tons, up sharply from 3,300 tons in 2015, while cultivated areas have increased by 10 percent in one year.
The Marines were among the first US forces sent to Afghanistan after the 2001 terror attacks in the United States. Several thousand were deployed in Helmand, where they engaged in bitter combat with the Taliban insurgency.


British PM Theresa May resigns over Brexit failure

Updated 59 min 14 sec ago
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British PM Theresa May resigns over Brexit failure

  • She will resign as Conservative Party leader on June 7 with a leadership contest in the following week
  • She endured crises and humiliation in her effort to find a compromise Brexit deal that parliament could ratify

LONDON:  British Prime Minister Theresa May said on Friday she would quit, triggering a contest that will bring a new leader to power who is likely to push for a more decisive Brexit divorce deal.

May set out a timetable for her departure — she will resign as Conservative Party leader on June 7 with a leadership contest beginning the following week.

“I will resign as leader of the Conservative and Unionist party on Friday, 7th June so that a successor can be chosen,” May said outside 10 Downing Street.

With her voice breaking up with emotion, May, who endured crises and humiliation in her effort to find a compromise Brexit deal that parliament could ratify, said she bore no ill will.

“I will shortly leave the job that has been the honor of my life to hold,” May said. “The second female prime minister, but certainly not the last.”

“I do so with no ill will but with enormous and enduring gratitude to have had the opportunity to serve the country I love,” May said.

May, once a reluctant supporter of EU membership, who won the top job in the turmoil that followed the 2016 Brexit vote, steps down with her central pledges — to lead the United Kingdom out of the bloc and heal its divisions — unfulfilled.

May bequeaths a deeply divided country and a political elite that is deadlocked over how, when or whether to leave the EU. She said her successor would need to find a consensus in parliament on Brexit.

May’s departure will deepen the Brexit crisis as a new leader is likely to want a more decisive split, raising the chances of a confrontation with the European Union and a snap parliamentary election.

The leading contenders to succeed May all want a tougher divorce deal, although the EU has said it will not renegotiate the Withdrawal Treaty it sealed in November.

Meanwhile, the EU will not offer whoever takes over as British prime minister a better Brexit deal, Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said on Friday.

“From my perspective, I don’t see the European Union offering any new prime minister a better or very different deal to what was on offer to Theresa May,” Coveney told Ireland’s Newstalk radio station after May on Friday said she would quit.

“This idea that a new prime minister will be a tougher negotiator and will put it up to the EU and get a much better deal for Britain? That’s not how the EU works.”