‘No military solution’ to Afghan conflict, says US defense chief

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani speaks with US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in Kabul on Tuesday. (Reuters)
Updated 13 March 2018
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‘No military solution’ to Afghan conflict, says US defense chief

KABUL: US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has ruled out a military solution to the US-led war in Afghanistan after arriving in Kabul on Tuesday for a surprise visit.
Mattis said that “elements within the Taliban guerrillas” might be open to talks with the Afghan government to end the 16-year US war in the country.
The defense chief’s visit follows an escalation of bloody attacks by the Taliban on Aghan security forces in recent months. US forces have launched weeks of intensive bombing of the militants as part of Washington’s strategy to end the stalemate in the war.
Mattis’ comments come two weeks after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani expressed a willingness to hold peace talks with the Taliban.
The insurgents spoke twice last month about the desire to hold talks with Washington, but so far have given no formal response to Kabul’s offer.
“It’s all working to achieve a political reconciliation, not a military victory,” Mattis told reporters before landing in Kabul. “The victory will be a political reconciliation.”
“It may not be that the whole Taliban comes over in one fell swoop — that would be a bridge too far — but there are elements of the Taliban that are clearly interested in talking to the Afghan government.”
He gave no further details and failed to specify who within the movement was eager to talk. “Right now we want the Afghans to lead and to provide the substance of the reconciliation effort,” he said.
At the same time, he acknowledged that efforts to reconcile with all of the Taliban had been difficult. The effort now is to reach “those who are tired of fighting” and build from there, he said.
President Donald Trump last year ordered increased bombing of Taliban targets, including drug-making labs and training camps. He also sent more than 3,000 extra US troops to Afghanistan to boost US training and advising of local forces.
Apart from other coalition forces, almost 14,000 US troops are now in Afghanistan, up from a low of about 8,500 when Obama left office.
Ghani’s offer of peace talks comes as his government faces unprecedented division. Civilian casualties have soared in recent months, with the Taliban increasingly conducting complex attacks, targeting towns and cities in response to Trump’s more aggressive military policy.
With the US taking more of an advisory role, Afghan security forces have been able to stop some attacks, Mattis said, though he wanted to see them shift to a more “offensive mindset” in the coming months.
His surprise visit — his third as Pentagon chief — was kept secret because of an incident during his last trip in September when insurgents shelled Kabul’s airport only hours after his arrival.
Mattis is also expected to hold talks with Ghani in addition to meetings with US commanders.
Waheed Mozhdah, an analyst who knows some of the Taliban’s past and current leaders, said the movement “has held indirect contacts with the US both before the announcement of Washington’s new war strategy and afterward.
“I know of contacts between the Taliban and the Americans. It seems that the Americans have reached the conclusion that the war has no military solution,” he told Arab News.
“I do not know which elements within the Taliban are prepared for talks with Kabul. If there are only isolated individuals coming over under the name of the Taliban, then we can not expect much.”
Mattis and Ghani will discuss peace with the Taliban, a comprehensive dialogue with Pakistan and the coming elections in Afghanistan among other issues, a spokesman for Ghani, Shah Hussain Murtazawi, said.


Macron’s ratings fall further after month of protests

Updated 16 December 2018
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Macron’s ratings fall further after month of protests

  • Many of the protesters have targeted Macron personally, calling on him to resign
  • Until last week, a clear majority of French people had backed the protests, which sprung up initially over high taxes

PARIS: A month of “yellow vest” protests have taken a further toll on the popularity of French President Emmanuel Macron, a new poll showed Sunday, with analysts saying he will be forced to change his style of governing.
Around 66,000 protesters turned out again on Saturday on the fifth round of anti-government demonstrations, which sprung up over diesel taxes last month.
The figure was about half the number of the previous weekend, suggesting momentum was waning and the most acute political crisis of Macron’s 19-month presidency was coming to an end.
“It is calming down, but what remains of it all is a strong feeling of hatred toward Macron,” said veteran sociologist Herve Le Bras from the School of Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (EHESS).
A major poll by the Ifop group published in Journal du Dimanche newspaper showed Macron’s approval had slipped another two points in the last month, to 23 percent.
The proportion of people who declared themselves “very dissatisfied” by his leadership jumped by six points to 45 percent.
Many of the protesters have targeted Macron personally, calling on him to resign or targeting his background as an investment banker and alleged elitism.
A different poll by Ipsos on Wednesday last week showed that a mere 20 percent of respondents were happy with his presidency, a fall of six points to its lowest ever level.
Le Bras said the protests had underlined the depth of dislike for Macron’s personality and style of governing, which critics see as arrogant and too distant.
“Even by being more humble, it’s going to be complicated,” he added.

Until last week, a clear majority of French people had backed the protests, which sprung up initially over high taxes before snowballing into a wider opposition front against Macron.
In a bid to end the standoff, he announced a package of measures for low-income workers on Monday in a televised address, estimated by economists to cost up to 15 billion euros ($17 billion).
The 40-year-old also acknowledged widespread animosity toward him and came close to apologizing for a series of verbal gaffes seen as dismissive of the poor or jobless.
Two polls published last Tuesday — in the wake of Macron’s concessions — suggested the country was now broadly 50-50 on whether the protests should continue.
“It’s a movement that has succeeded in forcing back what looked like a strong government,” Jerome Sainte-Marie, a public opinion expert at the Pollingvox group, told AFP.
“People have confidence in themselves now, so things won’t return to how they were on November 15” before the protests started, he said.
“The context in which Emmanuel Macron holds power has changed,” he added.
The former investment banker had until now styled himself as a determined pro-business reformer who would not yield to pressure from protests like his predecessors.
“Macron has given an indication that he is more open to dialogue,” Jean-Daniel Levy from the Harris Interactiv polling group told AFP.
The government has announced a six-month consultation with civil society groups, mayors, businesses and the “yellow vests” to discuss tax and other economic reforms.
Hikes in petrol and diesel taxes, as well as tougher emissions controls on old vehicles — justified on the grounds of environmental protection — were what sparked the “yellow vest” movement.
Macron “won’t necessarily change the overall course of his reforms, rather the way he carries them out,” Levy added.

In Paris on Saturday, the more than 8,000 police on duty easily outnumbered the 2,200 protesters counted by local authorities.
There were 168 arrests by early evening, far fewer than the 1,000 or so of last Saturday.
Tear gas was occasionally fired, but only a fraction compared with the weekends of December 8 or December 1 when graffiti was daubed on the Arc de Triomphe in scenes that shocked France.
Richard Ferrand, the head of the National Assembly, welcomed the “necessary” weakening of “yellow vest” rallies on Saturday, adding that “there had been a massive response to their demands.”
Interior Minister Christophe Castaner also called on protesters to halt their blockades across the country which have seen traffic and businesses disrupted.
“Everyone’s safety has to become the rule again,” he said in a tweet.
“Dialogue now needs to unite all those who want to transform France.”
He said eight people had died since the start of the movement.
Around 69,000 security forces were mobilized across France on Saturday, down from 89,000 the weekend before when 2,000 people were detained.