Two Democrats to be sworn in as senators, narrow GOP majority

File Photo: Democrat Doug Jones, who won the special US Senate election, speaks during a news conference in Birmingham, Alabama, US. (Reuters)
Updated 03 January 2018

Two Democrats to be sworn in as senators, narrow GOP majority

WASHINGTON: Two new Democrats will be sworn in to the US Senate on Wednesday, narrowing the Republican majority and complicating efforts by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to advance the White House’s legislative agenda before the midterm elections in November.
Doug Jones, the first Alabama Democrat elected to the Senate in a quarter century, is one of two new members who will take the oath of office on the Senate floor at noon. The other is Minnesota Lt. Gov. Tina Smith, who was appointed to replace Al Franken following the Democrat’s resignation over accusations of sexual misconduct. Smith also plans to compete in the special election taking place in November to complete the final two years of Franken’s term.
They will narrow the Republican majority to 51-49.
Jones, 63, will represent one of the most conservative states in the nation and is stressing his desire to work with both parties. He will be under pressure to find some areas of agreement with Republicans and has cited the funding of infrastructure improvements as one possible avenue.
“I will be an independent voice and work to find common ground with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to get Washington back on track and fight to make our country a better place for all,” Jones said after defeating Republican Roy Moore in a special election rocked by allegations of sexual misconduct against Moore. Jones will take the seat once held by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Before the Senate seat belonged to Sessions, it belonged to the man Jones considered his mentor, the late Sen. Howell Heflin. Jones worked for Heflin as a staffer after graduating from law school in 1979. Heflin was the last Democrat to represent Alabama in the US Senate.
Jones said for that reason, Wednesday will feel something like a homecoming, bringing his career full circle. During the swearing-in, Jones will be wearing a pair of Heflin’s cufflinks. Jones plans to place one of Heflin’s cigar boxes in his office.
“To be able to have done the things I’ve done and end up back here is just a remarkable thing,” Jones said. “I am looking forward to getting my feet wet and getting to know my colleagues and jumping into the action.”
Jones said he is hopeful that he comes to the Senate with a “little bit of a voice” because of the attention on the Alabama race.
“There are a lot of people who didn’t vote for me, and I hope they will keep an open mind because I am going to try to be the best senator I can for the state to try to move the state forward as a whole and not just one particular group or philosophy,” he said.
Jones made it clear during the campaign that he was opposed to the GOP’s efforts to repeal President Barack Obama’s signature health care overhaul, the Affordable Care Act. He said the efforts would drive up costs and lead to the closure of more rural health care facilities in the state. “That is a nonstarter,” Jones said.
Smith, 59, served as chief of staff to Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton before becoming his No. 2 when the previous lieutenant governor declined to seek a second term.
Smith is known largely as a liberal Democrat who has maintained connections to the state’s large and politically powerful business community.
Once the senators take the oath of office, they reprise the event at a ceremony with family and friends in the Old Senate Chamber, once the home to the US Senate and later to the US Supreme Court from 1860 to 1935.
Former Vice President Walter Mondale is expected to join Smith at the ceremony.
Jones said former Vice President Joe Biden, who headlined Jones’ campaign kickoff rally, and former Attorney General Eric Holder are expected to be among his guests Wednesday.

Taliban target telecoms in $3bn blow for Afghan leadership

Updated 21 April 2018

Taliban target telecoms in $3bn blow for Afghan leadership

  • In recent years, engineers and employees of firms have been targeted and killed when the companies failed to follow insurgents’ orders.
  • Scores of mobile phone towers have been destroyed by Taliban insurgents after firms ignored their demands to shut down operations during military offensives

KABUL: Taliban insurgents and criminal groups are targeting Afghanistan’s telecommunications network, raising the security threat in the country and putting an industry with an estimated $3 billion value under growing strain.

Attacks by insurgents and criminals extorting money from private telecommunications firms have increased throughout the country. Raids have taken place in previously secure areas in northern and northeastern provinces that are outside the traditional power base of the Taliban, officials and phone operators said.

In southern Helmand and neighboring Uruzgan provinces, the Taliban who lead the insurgency against the government and US-led troops have broadened their ban on mobile phone firms following offensives by Afghan and foreign troops.

Insurgents also want to show that the government is unable to safeguard mobile phone operations.

“Telecommunication was one of the success stories in the new Afghanistan from the viewpoint of generating investment and revenues for the government,” a senior official for a major mobile company told Arab News on Friday.

“Foreign investors and ordinary Afghans have become reliant on the industry in recent years.” 

The official, who declined to be named, said: “We are talking about the country’s biggest private investment suffering, an investment that provides several hundred million dollars as tax revenue to the government annually and offers jobs to tens of thousands of Afghans.”

Scores of mobile phone towers have been destroyed by Taliban insurgents after firms ignored their demands to shut down operations during military offensives. Militants believe locals or government agents use the networks to relay information on the location of their fighters.

Each tower costs at least $400,000 to replace. In some insecure areas, firms have been unable to deliver fuel to keep the towers’ generators running, or have been barred by the government, which fears insurgents will steal the fuel, an official with another mobile firm said.

In recent years, engineers and employees of firms have been targeted and killed when the companies failed to follow insurgents’ orders. Now when the Taliban tell operators to shut down operations, there is rarely any delay in doing so.

“This is a major economic, political blow to the government,” Obaidullah Barekzai, a lawmaker from Uruzgan province, told Arab News.

“Mobile phones have been banned in the entire Uruzgan, except for an hour every day in its provincial capital.”

A Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, confirmed the restrictions on mobile operators, particularly in Helmand.

“According to our intelligence in Helmand and in some other parts of the country, American troops have been misusing the telephone companies and are bombing people’s houses and conducting raids on them,” he said.

“As long as security threats exist and danger is posed to the lives of people, we are forced to shut down telephone networks and will allow resumption of their activities only when security allows.”

Until a few years ago, it was the country’s younger generation that relied on mobile phones and Internet, but now older people go online to contact relatives and family members who have been living abroad as war refugees or migrants, another official said. Mobile Money has been used by some firms to pay the salaries of government troops and civil servants in remote and volatile areas in recent years.