Top Pentagon official in Afghanistan amid push for peace

Talks with the Taliban have previously been made to negotiate peace. (File/AFP)
Updated 11 February 2019
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Top Pentagon official in Afghanistan amid push for peace

  • The unannounced visit is the first for the acting secretary of defense, Pat Shanahan
  • Shanahan said he is encouraged that Trump’s administration is exploring all possibilities for ending a 17-year war

KABUL, Afghanistan: The Pentagon’s top official made an unannounced visit to Afghanistan on Monday to meet with US commanders and Afghan leaders amid a push for peace with the Taliban.
Pat Shanahan, the recently installed acting secretary of defense, said he has no orders to reduce the US troop presence, although officials say that is at the top of the Taliban’s list of demands in exploratory peace negotiations.
Shanahan said he is encouraged that President Donald Trump’s administration is exploring all possibilities for ending a 17-year war, the longest in American history.
But he stressed that peace terms are for the Afghans to decide. Thus far the Taliban have refused to negotiate with the government of President Ashraf Ghani, calling it illegitimate. Washington is trying to break that impasse.
“The Afghans have to decide what Afghanistan looks like. It’s not about the US, it’s about Afghanistan,” Shanahan told reporters traveling with him from Washington.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the administration’s special envoy for Afghan peace talks, said Friday that although talks are in an early stage, he hopes a deal can be made by July. That is when Afghanistan is scheduled to hold a presidential election.
Shanahan, a former Boeing executive who had never been in Afghanistan until Monday, was scheduled to meet with Ghani and other top government officials.
Shanahan took over as acting secretary of defense on Jan. 1 after Jim Mattis submitted his resignation in December. Shanahan had been Mattis’ No. 2.
Shanahan’s views on the Afghan war are not widely known. He said he would use this week’s visit to inform his thinking and to report back to Trump.
In testimony before Congress last week, Gen. Joseph Votel, the commander of US Central Command, offered a largely optimistic view of Afghanistan, saying the current maneuvering between US and Taliban negotiators is “our first real opportunity for peace and reconciliation since the war began.”
Votel noted that the Taliban are still capable of inflicting significant casualties on Afghan government forces. Just last week the insurgents killed some two dozen Afghan troops in an attack on an army base in northern Kunduz province.
In addition to battling the Taliban, US and coalition forces in Afghanistan are focused on a Daesh affiliate known as Daesh-Khorasan, comprised of foreign fighters largely from Pakistan. “Left unchecked,” Votel said in his report to Congress, Daesh-Khorasan “will continue to grow as a threat to our homeland.”
In his remarks to reporters during his flight to Kabul, Shanahan said that although the Islamic State presence in Syria “has been decimated,” local Syrian security forces are needed to ensure stability. He said IS still has a global presence.
“If something hasn’t been completely eradicated, there is a risk of it returning,” he said.
Trump has taken an ambivalent approach to Afghanistan, saying his instinct upon entering office in 2017 was to withdraw. Yet he chose instead to add about 3,500 troops in 2017-2018 to bolster the US effort to train and advise Afghan forces. After Mattis resigned in December, Trump insisted that he had been unhappy with how Mattis handled Afghanistan. Since then, the administration has said it achieved a tentative “framework” for fuller peace negotiations with the Taliban.
“We do not know whether we will achieve an agreement,” Trump said in his State of the Union address to Congress last week, “but we do know that after two decades of war, the hour has come to at least try for peace.”


Google to end forced arbitration for all worker disputes

Updated 27 min 15 sec ago
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Google to end forced arbitration for all worker disputes

SAN FRANCISCO, US: Google said Thursday it will no longer require that its workers settle disputes with the company through arbitration, responding to months of pressure from employees.
The change will take effect March 21 and will apply to current and future employees. Employees that have settled past disputes won’t be able to re-open their cases.
Google said last year it would end forced arbitration for sexual harassment and assault cases, and Thursday expanded that practice to all worker disputes. Google’s parent company, Mountain View, California-based Alphabet Inc., has its nearly 100,000 employees.
The updated practices only apply to Google employees, and employees of Google projects such as Deep Mind and Access. Other Alphabet subsidiaries, such as Waymo, are not included.
Mandatory arbitration requires employees to settle their disputes with the company privately and outside of court. The practice, widespread in US employment contracts, can lend itself to secrecy and has faced criticism recently.
Google workers who staged a walk out late last year have continued to press the tech giant to drop forced arbitration requirements. Protest organizers commended Google for Thursday’s announcement, but wrote in a Medium post that they would not officially celebrate until the changes went live in employee agreements.
Google won’t make all employees re-sign their work contracts, it said, but will post the policy change internally and update its contracts for new employees.
The company also said it would extend the change to its agreements with contract workers. But it will not require vendors to change their own contracts, meaning some workers could still be held to the previous standard.
Other tech companies including Facebook, Uber and Microsoft have recently ended forced arbitration for sexual assault and harassment claims.
Google Walkout organizers who are focused on forced arbitration issues said they would continue working on ending the practice at other companies. Members of the group plan to meet with lawmakers in Washington, D.C., next week to advocate for a federal law against forced arbitration.