General: Afghan military will collapse without some US help

General: Afghan military will collapse without some US help
Afghans watch a civilian vehicle burnt after being shot by US forces in Kabul. U.S. military has begun shipping equipment ahead of May 1, start of final phase to pullout from Afghanistan. (AP)
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Updated 22 April 2021

General: Afghan military will collapse without some US help

General: Afghan military will collapse without some US help
  • Head of U.S. Central Command said as U.S. pulls out all forces “my concern is the Afghans' ability to hold ground”
  • U.S. officials have made it clear that military commanders didn’t recommend the full, unconditional withdrawal that Biden has ordered

WASHINGTON: Afghanistan’s military “will certainly collapse” without some continued American support once all US troops are withdrawn, the top US general for the Middle East told Congress Thursday.
Gen. Frank McKenzie also said he was very concerned about the Afghan government’s ability to protect the US Embassy in Kabul.
McKenzie, head of US Central Command, said that as the US pulls out all forces, “my concern is the Afghans’ ability to hold ground” and whether they will able to continue to maintain and fly their aircraft without US aid and financial support.
He said it will be paramount to protect the US Embassy and “it is a matter of great concern to me whether or not the future government of Afghanistan will be able to do that once we leave.”
McKenzie has spent the week detailing to lawmakers the steep challenges facing the US military as it moves to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, as ordered by President Joe Biden last week. Walking a careful line, the general has painted a dire picture of the road ahead, while also avoiding any pushback on Biden’s decision.
US officials have made it clear that military commanders did not recommend the full, unconditional withdrawal that Biden has ordered.
Military leaders have consistently argued for a drawdown based on security conditions in the country, saying that pulling troops out by a certain date eliminates pressure on the Taliban and weakens US leverage in the peace talks with the group.
Still, McKenzie said the Biden administration’s “deliberate and methodical” withdrawal discussion “was heartening,” implicitly drawing a contrast with former President Donald Trump’s penchant for making abrupt troop withdrawal decisions and announcing them by tweet.
In public and private sessions with lawmakers, McKenzie has been pressed about how the US will maintain pressure on the Taliban and prevent terrorist groups from taking hold in Afghanistan again once the United States and its coalition partners leave.
The US has more than 2,500 troops in the country; the NATO coalition has said it will follow the same timetable for withdrawing the more than 7,000 allied forces.
He told the Senate Armed Service Committee on Thursday that once troops leave the country, it will take “considerably longer” than four hours to move armed drones or other aircraft in and out of Afghanistan to provide overhead surveillance or counterterrorism strikes. He said it will require far more aircraft than he is using now.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, speaking at NATO earlier this month, said the US will continue to support the Afghans after the withdrawal. He said “we will look to continue funding key capabilities such as the Afghan Air Force and Special Mission Wing, and we will seek to continue paying salaries for Afghan Security Forces.”
Austin and others have said the US will maintain the ability to counter terrorists in Afghanistan, but there are few details, and officials say they have not yet gotten any diplomatic agreements for basing with any of the surrounding nations.
McKenzie has declined to provide details during the public sessions.
He said there are no decisions yet on what size of diplomatic contingent will be left at the US Embassy in the Afghan capital, and whether it will include a security cooperation office. Those decisions, he said, could reflect how the US ensures the defense of the embassy. Marines often provide security at other embassies around the world.
Senators voiced divided views on the withdrawal, with comments crossing party lines. Several lawmakers questioned whether the US will be able to prevent the Taliban from allowing a resurgence of terrorist groups in Afghanistan who are seeking to attack America. Others asked if the US will be able to adequately account for how the Afghan government spends any American money.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H. said there are concerns that a US withdrawal will create a vacuum in the country that China, Russian or Iran will fill. But Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., argued that the US presence in Afghanistan over the past 10 years has not led to much improvement. She said the government is still corrupt and the Taliban control a larger portion of the country than it did before.
The Pentagon has said it’s not clear yet whether any US contractors will remain in the country. The Defense Department says the number of contractors in Afghanistan started to decline over the past year or so. According to the latest numbers, there are close to 17,000 Defense Department-funded contractors in Afghanistan and less than one-third of those were Americans.
The total included more than 2,800 armed and unarmed private security contractors, of which more than 1,500 are armed. Of those 1,500, about 600 are Americans.


Prison ‘exacerbated’ risk London Bridge terrorist posed to public: Inquest

Usman Khan (L), 28, killed Saskia Jones, and Jack Merritt, in a knife attack in central London in 2019, just 11 months after he was released early from jail. (AP/Reuters/File Photos)
Usman Khan (L), 28, killed Saskia Jones, and Jack Merritt, in a knife attack in central London in 2019, just 11 months after he was released early from jail. (AP/Reuters/File Photos)
Updated 07 May 2021

Prison ‘exacerbated’ risk London Bridge terrorist posed to public: Inquest

Usman Khan (L), 28, killed Saskia Jones, and Jack Merritt, in a knife attack in central London in 2019, just 11 months after he was released early from jail. (AP/Reuters/File Photos)
  • Usman Khan, 28, killed 2 people in deadly knife attack in central London
  • 2019 attack among number of incidents that pushed UK to introduce stricter counter-terrorism measures in jails

LONDON: A psychologist warned that prison had made a terrorist more dangerous to the public than when he was first jailed, an inquest heard.

Usman Khan, 28, killed Saskia Jones, and Jack Merritt, in a knife attack in central London in 2019, just 11 months after he was released early from jail.

Khan had been imprisoned since 2010 for planning to bomb the London Stock Exchange and had associated with terrorists and radicalized other inmates while behind bars, the court investigating the deaths of Jones, 23, and Merritt, 25, was told.

Security officials believed Khan was a senior figure in an extremist gang while in jail. He had also been found in possession of terrorism and Daesh-related materials in his cell.

Ieva Cechaviciute, a psychologist who assessed Khan’s risk to the public while he was still in jail, said she had been “very worried” about his release.

The court was shown a report, produced by Cechaviciute, that warned seven months before his release that he continued to pose a threat to the public.

“Khan has made little progress while in prison, he doesn’t understand his own risk and being in prison has made him a greater risk than before by elevating his profile. He still refuses to accept responsibility for his crime,” minutes from a meeting said.

Imprisonment, Cechaviciute said, had “exacerbated” the risk that Khan posed, because of his violent and extremist behavior, as well as the “company he was keeping.”

“He didn’t have any convictions for violence, but he was becoming quite aggressive and there were assaults committed by him or him organizing them (inside jail). I saw that in addition to the offence he committed before, he could be violent himself,” she added.

Records showed that Khan had complied with deradicalization programs, and other staff have previously told the court that he appeared to have reformed while in jail and posed little threat to the public.

Cechaviciute and other psychologists had previously warned that his participation in these programs could have been “superficial.”

She told the court: “He was saying the right things, but it did not necessarily represent his behavior … it was quite clear to me that he has not disengaged with extremist ideology.

“It was strong in his head and the best we could hope for was him to desist from offending rather than disengaging from the ideology.”

Khan’s engagements with deradicalization programs, she added, were not “necessarily an indication of reduction in risk,” because he could be “trying to create a positive image of himself.”

Her report rated Khan as a medium risk for terrorist engagement, intent, and capability while inside prison — but predicted that it would rise to “high” when he was released.

Khan’s role in the deadly London Bridge terror attack caused controversy in the UK because of his recent release from prison after completing deradicalization programs.

Since the attack, the British government has introduced stricter counter-terrorism measures for known offenders.

The new Counterterrorism and Sentencing Act “completely ends the prospect of early release for anyone convicted of a serious terror offence” as well as significantly increases the amount of monitoring recently released terrorists are subjected to.

The inquest into the 2019 attack continues.


Greece to reopen beaches, museums after long lockdown

Greece to reopen beaches, museums after long lockdown
Updated 07 May 2021

Greece to reopen beaches, museums after long lockdown

Greece to reopen beaches, museums after long lockdown
  • Museums are to reopen on May 14, a day before Greece officially launches its travel season
  • Government began in early April to relax lockdown restrictions originally imposed in November

ATHENS: Greece will reopen private beaches on Saturday and museums next week, health officials said Friday as the tourism-dependent country gears up for a May 15 travel restart.
Museums are to reopen on May 14 — a day before Greece officially launches its travel season — followed by reduced-capacity outdoor cinemas on May 21 and theaters on May 28.
The government began in early April to relax lockdown restrictions originally imposed in November by reopening most retail shops except malls.
This was followed by high schools reopening a week later, and by outdoor restaurants and cafes on May 3.
However, tourism operators do not expect major travel arrivals before July.
Last month quarantine restrictions were lifted for vaccinated or tested travelers from the EU and a small number of other countries including Britain and the United States.
The third wave of the pandemic hit Greece hard with the majority of the country’s more than 10,000 virus deaths occurring over the last few months.
The country has recorded over 350,000 cases of coronavirus in a population of 10.8 million.
Over 3.4 million vaccinations have been carried out, and over a million people have received their second dose.


WHO gives emergency approval to Sinopharm, first Chinese COVID-19 vaccine

WHO gives emergency approval to Sinopharm, first Chinese COVID-19 vaccine
Updated 07 May 2021

WHO gives emergency approval to Sinopharm, first Chinese COVID-19 vaccine

WHO gives emergency approval to Sinopharm, first Chinese COVID-19 vaccine
  • Sinopharm becomes the first COVID-19 shot developed by a non-Western country to win the WHO's backing
  • First time WHO has given emergency use approval to any Chinese vaccine for any infectious disease

GENEVA: The World Health Organization (WHO) announced on Friday it had approved a COVID-19 vaccine from China’s state-owned drugmaker Sinopharm for emergency use.
The vaccine, one of two main Chinese shots that collectively have already been given to hundreds of millions of people in China and abroad, becomes the first COVID-19 shot developed by a non-Western country to win the WHO’s backing.
It is also the first time the WHO has given emergency use approval to any Chinese vaccine for any infectious disease.
A WHO emergency listing is a signal to national regulators on a product’s safety and efficacy, and would allow the shot to be included in COVAX, the global program to provide vaccines mainly for poor countries.
The WHO has previously given emergency approval to COVID-19 vaccines developed by Pfizer-BioNTech, AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, and, last week, Moderna.


UN must shoulder responsibility to resolve Israel-Palestine confict, Saudi envoy says

Abdallah Al-Mouallimi told Antonio Guterres that the Israel-Palestine issue was “central to the UN agenda since its inception.” (KSA Mission to UN/File Photo)
Abdallah Al-Mouallimi told Antonio Guterres that the Israel-Palestine issue was “central to the UN agenda since its inception.” (KSA Mission to UN/File Photo)
Updated 07 May 2021

UN must shoulder responsibility to resolve Israel-Palestine confict, Saudi envoy says

Abdallah Al-Mouallimi told Antonio Guterres that the Israel-Palestine issue was “central to the UN agenda since its inception.” (KSA Mission to UN/File Photo)
  • Abdallah Al-Mouallimi also pressed Guterres on plans for finding peaceful solutions to conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Libya

NEW YORK: It is time for the United Nations to shoulder responsibility in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Saudi Arabia’s permanent representative to the UN said on Friday.

Abdallah Al-Mouallimi, speaking at the Secretary General selection dialogue, told Antonio Guterres that the issue was “central to the UN agenda since its inception,” and urged him to continue support and funding for United National Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).

The Saudi envoy also pressed Guterres on plans for finding peaceful solutions to conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Libya.

“What are you planning to do so that peace in Middle East moves forward?” Al-Mouallimi asked the Secretary General.

He also asked Guterres, who is standing for reappointment as Secretary-General, how the UN planned to ensure the Middle East was an area free of nuclear weapons.

The Saudi envoy praised Guterres for achieving gender parity, but questioned him on geographical parity, pointing to the fact Arabs were underrepresented in senior leadership positions.

Al-Mouallimi also pressed the Secretary-General on plans to combat desertification and lack of water resources in Middle East.

More to follow…


Gandhi warns ‘explosive’ COVID wave threatens India and the world

Gandhi warns ‘explosive’ COVID wave threatens India and the world
Updated 07 May 2021

Gandhi warns ‘explosive’ COVID wave threatens India and the world

Gandhi warns ‘explosive’ COVID wave threatens India and the world
  • Gandhi implored Prime Minister Narendra Modi to prepare for new lockdown and accelerate vaccination programme
  • India reported record daily rise in coronavirus cases 414,188 Friday, bringing the total for the week to 1.57 million

BENGALURU: India’s main opposition leader Rahul Gandhi warned on Friday that unless the deadly second COVID-19 wave sweeping the country was brought under control it would devastate India and threaten the rest of the world.
In a letter, Gandhi implored Prime Minister Narendra Modi to prepare for another national lockdown, accelerate a countrywide vaccination program and scientifically track the virus and its mutations.
Gandhi said the world’s second-most populous nation had a responsibility in “a globalized and interconnected world” to stop the “explosive” growth of COVID-19 within its borders.
“India is home to one out of every six human beings on the planet. The pandemic has demonstrated that our size, genetic diversity and complexity make India fertile ground for the virus to rapidly mutate, transforming itself into a more contagious and more dangerous form,” wrote Gandhi.
“Allowing the uncontrollable spread of the virus in our country will be devastating not only for our people but also for the rest of the world.”
India’s highly infectious COVID-19 variant B.1.617 has already spread to other countries, and many nations have moved to cut or restrict movements from India.
British Prime Minister Boris said on Friday the government needed to handle very carefully the emergence of new coronavirus strains in India that have since started to spread in the United Kingdom.
Meanwhile tons of medical equipment from abroad has starting to arrive in Delhi hospitals, in what could ease the pressure on an overburdened system.
In the past week, India has reported an extra 1.5 million new infections and record daily death tolls. Since the start of the pandemic, it has reported 21.49 million cases and 234,083 deaths. It currently has 3.6 million active cases.
Modi has been widely criticized for not acting sooner to suppress the second wave, after religious festivals and political rallies drew tens of thousands of people in recent weeks and became “super spreader” events.
His government — which imposed a strict lockdown in March 2020 — has also been criticized for lifting social restrictions too soon following the first wave and for delays in the country’s vaccination program.
The government has been reluctant to impose a second lockdown for fear of the damage to the economy, though many states have announced their own restrictions.
Goa, a tourism hotspot on the west coast where up to one in two people tested in recent weeks for coronavirus have been positive, on Friday announced strict curbs from Sunday, restricting timings for grocery shops, forbidding unnecessary travel and urging citizens to cancel all gatherings.
While India is the world’s biggest vaccine maker, it is also struggling to produce and distribute enough doses to stem the wave of COVID-19.
Although the country has administered at least 157 million vaccine doses, its rate of inoculation has fallen sharply in recent days.
India vaccinated 2.3 million people on Thursday, the most this month but still far short of what is required to curb the spread of the virus.
India reported another record daily rise in coronavirus cases, 414,188, on Friday, bringing total new cases for the week to 1.57 million. Deaths from COVID-19 rose by 3,915 to 234,083.
Medical experts say the real extent of COVID-19 is likely to be far higher than official tallies.
India’s health care system is crumbling under the weight of patients, with hospitals running out of beds and medical oxygen. Morgues and crematoriums cannot handle the number of dead and makeshift funeral pyres burn in parks and car parks.
Infections are now spreading from overcrowded cities to remote rural villages that are home to nearly 70 percent of the 1.3 billion population.
Although northern and western areas of India bear the brunt of the disease, the south now seems to be turning into the new epicenter.
In the southern city of Chennai, only one in a hundred oxygen-supported beds and two in a hundred beds in intensive care units (ICUs) were vacant on Thursday, from a vacancy rate of more than 20 percent each two weeks ago, government data showed.
In India’s tech capital Bengaluru, also in the south, only 23 of the 590 beds in ICUs were vacant.
The test-positivity rate — the percentage of people tested who are found to have the disease — in the city of 12.5 million has tripled to almost 39 percent as of Wednesday, from about 13 percent two weeks ago, data showed.
Syed Tousif Masood, a volunteer with a COVID-19 resource group in Bengaluru called the Project Smile Trust, said the group’s helpline was receiving an average 5,000 requests a day for hospital beds and oxygen, compared with 50-100 such calls just one month ago.
“The experts say we have not yet hit the peak,” he said. “If this is not the peak, then I don’t know what will happen at the real peak.”