Afghan forces demoralized, rife with corruption

Afghan forces demoralized, rife with corruption
Afghan soldiers patrol outside their military base on the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, May 9, 2021. (File/AP)
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Updated 27 May 2021

Afghan forces demoralized, rife with corruption

Afghan forces demoralized, rife with corruption

KABUL: Abdullah Mohammadi lost his two legs and an arm below the elbow in a ferocious battle with the Taliban. As a young soldier, he had been eager to fight for his country, but now he’s furious at a government he says ignores him and hasn't paid his veteran’s pension in almost one year.
Afghanistan’s National Defense and Security Forces, meant to be the bulwark against advancing Taliban insurgents, are rife with corruption, demoralized and struggling to keep territory. The government says the army can hold its own, but military experts warn of a tough fight ahead for poorly trained, ill-equipped troops whose loyalties waver between their country and local warlords.
By Sept. 11 at the latest, the remaining 2,300-3,500 U.S. troops and roughly 7,000 allied NATO forces will have left Afghanistan, ending nearly 20 years of military engagement. Also leaving is the American air support that the Afghan military has relied on to stave off potentially game-changing Taliban assaults, ever since it took command of the war from the U.S. and NATO in 2014.
“Without U.S. military support, it is a matter of time before the Taliban consolidates its gains, particularly in the south, east and west,” said Bill Roggio, senior fellow at the American Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and editor of its Long War Journal, which tracks militant movements.
This week, some of the heaviest fighting since President Joe Biden announced the end to America's ‘forever war’ took place in eastern Laghman province with the Taliban threatening the provincial capital of Mehtar Lam. Particularly worrisome going forward, police and army deserted several posts protecting the city, allowing Taliban to walk in and keep abandoned military equipment as their own.
At least half the country is believed to be contested ground, often with the government holding only the main towns and cities in local districts and the Taliban dominating the countryside.
Within the Afghan army, soldiers complain of substandard equipment, even shoddy basic items like army boots that fall apart within weeks because corrupt contractors used inferior material. The Associated Press witnessed boots with gaping holes being worn, insufficient helmets available and weapons that often jammed.
At a police outpost seen by the AP earlier this month, eight men lived in a partially built bunker that looked big enough for only half that number. They had only a few rifles as they watched sentry from two turret-style posts on the outpost’s high brick walls. They overlook a busy road where the Taliban frequently attack security convoys.
The commander, who wore sandals, said the outpost is occasionally hit by rocket or gunfire and would have a hard time fending off a full-fledged attack.
“There’s no other option but peace,” he said, asking not to be identified because he did not have permission to allow the media into his compound.
Mohammadi, the veteran, was wounded six years ago in Zhari district in southern Kandahar province, once the spiritual heartland of the Taliban until their ouster in 2001 by U.S.-led coalition forces.
He led a company of 18 men airlifted into battle in a grape field, about 5 kilometers (3 miles) from their nearest base. The fight went on all day and night until eventually the Taliban surrounded them.
For a year he recovered in hospital. He received two wooden legs and an artificial plastic hand. The legs are painful to wear and he can manage them only for 15 minutes at a time. It takes two people to help him get them on, and he sometimes pays a neighbor to help.
“I am proud of what I have sacrificed for this country. What I gave for my country I gave with pride,” he said.
But Mohammadi is fuming at the government. For years, his veteran’s pension, around 16,000 Afghanis ($200) a month, has been erratic, and for the past 11 months he hasn’t received it at all. “They tell me to wait,” he said.
Mohammadi says has had to borrow from family and friends. It wounds his pride, but it’s better than begging, he said.
Speaking to the AP, Defense Ministry’ Deputy Spokesman Fawad Aman promised to look into the complaint. He said that corruption, while it exists, is not widespread and efforts are being made to tackle it and that the spirit of the fighting force was high.
“With the withdrawal of United States forces there will be no security vacuum or gap in Afghanistan because our forces can defend Afghanistan independently,” he said.
Washington’s chief watchdog overseeing U.S. spending in Afghanistan, John Sopko, told a Congressional hearing in March that corruption is one of the biggest threats to Afghanistan’s security force and is fueling the insurgency.
The U.S is committed to pay $4 billion annually until 2024 to finance Afghanistan’s security forces. As of Dec. 31, 2020, Sopko said the U.S. has spent $88.3 billion to help the Afghan government provide security in Afghanistan — roughly 62% of all U.S. reconstruction funding.
Yet, according to Attiqullah Amarkhiel, the Afghan army of today is half as good as the army left by the former Soviet Union when it withdrew in 1989, ending its 10-year occupation of Afghanistan.
Amarkhiel was major general in the 1989 Moscow-allied Afghan army and served in the post-Taliban government of President Hamid Karzai. He helped build the security forces following the Taliban’s fall in 2001.
The army of 1989 were professional educated soldiers, unlike the mostly uneducated post-Taliban force. Then the army numbered 150,000 troops, compared to the 300,000 today. “But then we had quality. Today we have quantity.”


New Zealand on edge after virus-infected Australian visits

New Zealand on edge after virus-infected Australian visits
Updated 23 June 2021

New Zealand on edge after virus-infected Australian visits

New Zealand on edge after virus-infected Australian visits
  • The country’s response has been among the most effective in the world and the isolated nation of 5 million people has recorded just 26 COVID-19 deaths.

WELLINGTON, New Zealand: After enjoying nearly four months without any community transmission of the coronavirus, New Zealanders were on edge Wednesday after health authorities said an infectious traveler from Australia had visited over the weekend.
New Zealand has taken a zero-tolerance approach to the pandemic and continues to pursue an elimination strategy.
The country’s response has been among the most effective in the world and the isolated nation of 5 million people has recorded just 26 COVID-19 deaths. But its vaccination campaign has been far slower than in most developed countries, with just 13 percent of the population having gotten their first dose.
Although there were no immediate cases confirmed as a result of the traveler’s visit from Sydney to New Zealand’s capital Wellington, authorities were asking people at more than a dozen locations to self-isolate for two weeks and get tested.
They also imposed physical distancing requirements in the Wellington region and restricted crowd sizes to 100 from Wednesday evening through Sunday.
“I’m confident that if we do all the things we have done in the past, if people do what is asked of them, we will reduce the risk,” said Ashley Bloomfield, the director-general of health.
Bloomfield said the traveler was linked to a Sydney outbreak of the more contagious Delta variant that originated in India.
The outbreak in Australia’s largest city has grown to 31 cases and led to a tightening of restrictions
It began last week when a Sydney airport limousine driver tested positive. He was not vaccinated and is suspected to have been infected while transporting a foreign air crew.
Residents living in the worst-affected parts of Sydney have been told they can only travel outside the city for essential reasons. Authorities have also made masks compulsory outside homes and limited the number of household visitors to five.
New Zealand has stopped quarantine-free travel from the Australian state of New South Wales for at least three days.
New Zealand and Australia opened a quarantine-free travel bubble in April, although it has been temporarily halted several times as Australia has dealt with small community outbreaks.
Health authorities said the traveler had visited New Zealand’s national museum Te Papa as well as a number of restaurants, stores and tourist spots. Te Papa announced it was closed and would provide updates as the situation unfolded.
Health authorities said the traveler visited Wellington from Saturday through Monday before returning to Australia and testing positive for COVID-19. They said four close contacts of the traveler were self-isolating and had all tested negative for the virus.


Rights group: Facebook amplified Myanmar military propaganda

Rights group: Facebook amplified Myanmar military propaganda
Updated 23 June 2021

Rights group: Facebook amplified Myanmar military propaganda

Rights group: Facebook amplified Myanmar military propaganda
  • The United Nations’ office in Myanmar expressed concern about escalating human rights abuses

Facebook’s recommendation algorithm amplifies military propaganda and other material that breaches the company’s own policies in Myanmar following a military takeover in February, a new report by the rights group Global Witness says.
A month after the military seized power in Myanmar and imprisoned elected leaders, Facebook’s algorithms were still prompting users to view and “like” pro-military pages with posts that incited and threatened violence, pushed misinformation that could lead to physical harm, praised the military and glorified its abuses, Global Witness said in the report, published late Tuesday.
That’s even though the social media giant vowed to remove such content following the coup, announcing it would remove Myanmar military and military-controlled pages from its site and from Instagram, which it also owns. It has since enacted other measures intended to reduce offline harm in the country.
Facebook said Tuesday its teams “continue to closely monitor the situation in Myanmar in real-time and take action on any posts, Pages or Groups that break our rules.”
Days after the Feb. 1 coup, the military temporarily blocked access to Facebook because it was being used to share anti-coup comments and organize protests. Access was later restored. In the following weeks, Facebook continued to tighten its policies against the military, banning all military entities from its platforms and saying it would remove praise or support for violence against citizens and their arrest.
“Once again, Facebook shows that it’s good at making broad sweeping announcements and bad at actually enforcing them. They’ve had years to improve their work in Myanmar but once again they are still failing,” said Sophie Zhang, a former Facebook data scientist and whistleblower who found evidence of political manipulation in countries such as Honduras and Azerbaijan while she worked there.
The struggle between the military regime that deposed Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government and those opposing it has sharpened in recent months.
Soldiers and police have killed hundreds of protesters. Last week, the United Nations’ office in Myanmar expressed concern about escalating human rights abuses after reports that a group opposed to the junta may have executed 25 civilians it captured and allegations that troops had burned down a village.
Myanmar, also known as Burma, had over 22.3 million Facebook users in January 2020, more than 40 percent of its population, according to social media management platform NapoleonCat.
“What happens on Facebook matters everywhere, but in Myanmar that is doubly true,” the report says. As in many countries outside the Western Hemisphere, mobile phones in Myanmar often come pre-loaded with Facebook and many businesses do not have a website, only a Facebook page. For many people in the country, Facebook effectively is the Internet.
On March 23, just before the peak of military violence against civilians, Global Witness said it set up a new, clean Facebook account with no history of liking or following specific topics and searched for “Tatmadaw”, the Burmese name for the armed forces. It filtered the search results to show pages, and selected the top result — a military fan page whose name translates as “a gathering of military lovers.”
Older posts on this page showed sympathy for Myanmar’s soldiers and at least two advertised for young people to join the military — but none of the newer posts since the coup violated Facebook’s policies. However, when Global Witness’s account “liked” the page, Facebook began recommending related pages with material inciting violence, false claims of interference in last year’s election and support of violence against civilians.
A March 1 post, for instance, includes a death threat against protesters who vandalize surveillance cameras.
“Those who threaten female police officers from the traffic control office and violently destroy the glass and destroy CCTV, those who cut the cables, those who vandalize with color sprays, (we) have been given an order to shoot to kill them on the spot,” reads part of the post in translation, according to the report. “Saying this before Tatmadaw starts doing this. If you don’t believe and continue to do this, go ahead. If you are not afraid to die, keep going.”
Facebook said its ban of the Tatmadaw and other measures have “made it harder for people to misuse our services to spread harm. This is a highly adversarial issue and we continue to take action on content that violates our policies to help keep people safe.”
Global Witness said its findings show that Facebook fails to uphold the “very basics” of its own guidelines.
“The platform operates too much like a walled garden, its algorithms are designed, trained, and tweaked without adequate oversight or regulation,” said Naomi Hirst, head of the digital threats campaign at Global Witness. “This secrecy has to end, Facebook must be made accountable.”


Grave concerns raised about China at UN rights council

Grave concerns raised about China at UN rights council
Delegates sit at the opening of the 41th session of the Human Rights Council, at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. (AP file photo)
Updated 23 June 2021

Grave concerns raised about China at UN rights council

Grave concerns raised about China at UN rights council
  • The statement cited reports of torture or cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment or punishment, forced sterilization, sexual and gender-based violence, and forced separation of children from their parents

GENEVA: More than 40 countries led by Canada voiced grave concerns at the UN Human Rights Council Tuesday about China’s actions in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tibet — triggering a fierce backlash from Beijing.
The widely anticipated joint statement had been in the pipeline for several days and was delivered on day two of the 47th session of the council in Geneva.
“We are gravely concerned about the human rights situation in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region,” Canada’s ambassador Leslie Norton said.
The statement was backed by Australia, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Spain and the United States, among others.
Beijing must allow UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet and other independent observers “immediate, meaningful and unfettered access” to Xinjiang, and end the “arbitrary detention” of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities, it said.
“Credible reports indicate that over a million people have been arbitrarily detained in Xinjiang and that there is widespread surveillance disproportionately targeting Uyghurs and members of other minorities and restrictions on fundamental freedoms and Uyghur culture,” it said.
The statement cited reports of torture or cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment or punishment, forced sterilization, sexual and gender-based violence, and forced separation of children from their parents.
The number of signatories is an increase from the 22 ambassadors who wrote to Bachelet in 2019 condemning China’s treatment of the Uyghurs.
China denies mistreating the Uyghurs, once a clear majority in their ancestral homeland until the state helped waves of ethnic Han Chinese migrate there. Beijing insists it is simply running vocational training centers designed to counter extremism.
Bachelet told the council on Monday she hoped at last to visit Xinjiang this year and be given “meaningful access.”
Tuesday’s statement was bound to further enrage Beijing, which decries what it says is the interference by foreign powers in its internal affairs.
The joint declaration also expressed concern over the deterioration of fundamental freedoms in Hong Kong and the human rights situation in Tibet.
The move came after US President Joe Biden’s first foreign trip, in which he garnered G7 and NATO unity in pushing back against Beijing, with Washington identifying China as the pre-eminent global challenge.
The statement “sends a crucial message to China’s authorities that they are not above international scrutiny,” said Agnes Callamard, head of the rights group Amnesty International.
But countries “must now move beyond handwringing and take real action,” she added.

Aware that the statement was coming, China had responded before it was even delivered.
Beijing’s representative read out a statement on behalf of a group of countries “deeply concerned about serious human rights violations against the indigenous people in Canada.”
Belarus, Iran, North Korea, Russia, Sri Lanka, Syria and Venezuela were among the co-signatories, according to the United Nations.
“Historically, Canada robbed the indigenous people of their land, killed them, and eradicated their culture,” the statement said.
It referenced the recent discovery of 215 unmarked graves at a former residential school in western Canada — one of many boarding schools set up a century ago to forcibly assimilate Canada’s indigenous peoples.
“We call for a thorough and impartial investigation into all cases where crimes were committed against the indigenous people, especially children,” the statement said.
The representative of Belarus read another joint statement on behalf of 64 countries, supporting China and stressing that Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet were Chinese internal affairs.
In Ottawa, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada had acknowledged and was seeking to make amends for wronging its indigenous peoples.
“In Canada, we had a truth and reconciliation commission,” he told journalists. “Where is China’s truth and reconciliation commission. Where is their truth?
“The journey of reconciliation is a long one, but it is a journey we are on,” he said. “China is not recognizing even that there is a problem.
“That is a pretty fundamental difference and that is why Canadians and people from around the world are speaking up for people like the Uyghurs who find themselves voiceless, faced with a government that will not recognize what’s happening to them.”


Kobe Bryant’s widow to settle lawsuit over deadly crash

Kobe Bryant’s widow to settle lawsuit over deadly crash
Updated 23 June 2021

Kobe Bryant’s widow to settle lawsuit over deadly crash

Kobe Bryant’s widow to settle lawsuit over deadly crash
  • The former NBA star, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, and six other passengers were killed in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26, 2020
  • The settlement agreement would end legal action against the pilot's estate and the helicopter company

LOS ANGELES: Kobe Bryant’s widow has agreed to settle a lawsuit against the pilot and owners of the helicopter that crashed last year, killing the NBA star, his daughter, Gianna, and seven others.
Vanessa Bryant, her children and relatives of other victims filed a settlement agreement notice Tuesday with a federal judge in Los Angeles but terms of the confidential deal weren’t disclosed.
If approved by the court, the settlement — first announced by KABC-TV — would end a negligence and wrongful death lawsuit filed against the estate of the pilot and the owner and operator of the helicopter that crashed into a hillside on Jan. 26, 2020.
Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and six other passengers were flying from Orange County to a youth basketball tournament at his Mamba Sports Academy in Ventura County. The helicopter encountered thick fog in the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles.
Pilot Ara Zobayan climbed sharply and had nearly broken through the clouds when the Sikorsky S-76 helicopter banked abruptly and plunged into the Calabasas hills below, killing all nine aboard instantly before flames engulfed the wreckage.
The others killed were Orange Coast College baseball coach John Altobelli, his wife, Keri, and their daughter Alyssa; Christina Mauser, who helped Bryant coach his daughter’s basketball team; and Sarah Chester and her daughter Payton. Alyssa and Payton were Gianna’s teammates.
The National Transportation Safety Board released a report in February that blamed pilot error for the crash. The NTSB said a series of poor decisions led Zobayan to fly blindly into a wall of clouds where he became so disoriented he thought he was climbing when the craft was plunging.
The agency also faulted Island Express Helicopters Inc. for inadequate review and oversight of safety matters.
The settlement agreement would end legal action against Zobayan’s estate, Island Express Helicopters Inc. and its owner, Island Express Holding Corp. The suit alleged the companies didn’t properly train or supervise Zobayan and that the pilot was careless and negligent to fly in fog and should have aborted the flight.
Island Express Helicopters has denied responsibility and said the crash was “an act of God” it couldn’t control. It countersued two Federal Aviation Administration air traffic controllers, saying the crash was caused by their “series of erroneous acts and/or omissions.”
The settlement agreement wouldn’t include the countersuit against the federal government.


US House Speaker Pelosi signals new panel to investigate Jan. 6 Capitol riot

US House Speaker Pelosi signals new panel to investigate Jan. 6 Capitol riot
In this Jan. 6, 2021, file photo police hold off supporters of Donald Trump who tried to break through a police barrier at the Capitol in Washington. (AP)
Updated 23 June 2021

US House Speaker Pelosi signals new panel to investigate Jan. 6 Capitol riot

US House Speaker Pelosi signals new panel to investigate Jan. 6 Capitol riot
  • A new select committee would put majority Democrats in charge of the investigation

WASHINGTON: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is signaling that she is poised to create a new committee to investigate the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, pushing closer to a partisan investigation of the attack after Senate Republicans blocked the creation of an independent probe.
A person familiar with the matter said after a meeting with Democrats that Pelosi had told her colleagues that she would create a select panel. The person spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the private remarks. But Pelosi later denied that, telling reporters, “No, I did not make that announcement.”
The new committee would come after the Senate voted earlier this month to block legislation to form a bipartisan, independent commission investigating the attack by former President Donald Trump’s supporters. Pelosi said afterward that the House would step up investigations of the riot, in which a violent mob overran police, broke into the building and hunted for lawmakers to try to stop the certification of Joe Biden’s election victory.
A new select committee would put majority Democrats in charge of the investigation. More than three dozen Republicans in the House and seven Senate Republicans said they wanted to avoid a partisan probe, and they supported the legislation to form a commission, which would have been modeled after a similar panel that investigated the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Still, those numbers weren’t strong enough to overcome GOP opposition in the Senate, where support from 10 Republicans is needed to pass most bills if all Democrats vote yes. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer has said he may hold a second vote after the legislation failed to advance last month, but there’s no indication that Democrats can win the necessary support from three additional Republicans.
Pelosi said earlier this month that the House “can’t wait any longer” and would proceed with a probe. She said then that she was considering a select committee or having an existing committee conduct the investigation.
Many Republicans have made clear that they want to move on from the Jan. 6 attack, brushing aside the many unanswered questions about the insurrection, including how the government and law enforcement missed intelligence leading up to the rioting and the role of Trump before and during the insurrection.
Some Republicans have gone so far as to downplay the violence, with one suggesting the rioters looked like tourists and another insisting that a woman, Ashli Babbitt, who was shot and killed that day while trying to break into the House chamber through a window was “executed.”
Last week, 21 Republicans voted against giving medals of honor to Capitol Police and Metropolitan Police to thank them for their service that day. Dozens of those officers suffered injuries, including chemical burns, brain injuries and broken bones.
Seven people died during and after the rioting, including Babbitt, three other Trump supporters who died of medical emergencies and two police officers who died by suicide in the days that followed. A third officer, Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick, collapsed and later died after engaging with the protesters, but a medical examiner determined he died of natural causes.