Former US general warns Taliban ‘will be back’ amid Afghan pullout

Former US general warns Taliban ‘will be back’ amid Afghan pullout
Afghan militia forces stand guard at an outpost as they patrol against the Taliban fighters in northern Takhar province. (File/AFP)
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Updated 29 July 2021

Former US general warns Taliban ‘will be back’ amid Afghan pullout

Former US general warns Taliban ‘will be back’ amid Afghan pullout
  • David Petraeus, senior UK intelligence official raise concerns over return of violence and potential refugee crisis

LONDON: The withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan will not mark the end of Taliban violence and will result in a situation that must be “managed” to avoid full-scale conflict, senior US and UK military figures have warned.

Retired US Gen. David Petraeus and Sir John Scarlett, a senior UK intelligence official, questioned the withdrawal process and raised concerns over the resulting long-term implications in an interview with Wilson Center President, Director and CEO Mark Green.

It comes ahead of the September withdrawal deadline that came as a result of long-term negotiations, including the landmark Doha agreement last year.

But Petraeus warned that a withdrawal would not result in long-term peace: “The big lesson of the past 20 years is that if you withdraw and declare victory and go home, they will be back.

“So instead, what you have to do, especially in cases where you can’t ‘win,’ where victory is not possible, you have to manage it. And the way to manage it is to get to the smallest, most affordable — in terms of blood and treasure — presence and capability that we can possibly design,” he said.

“We could have achieved the objective that we were staying in Afghanistan to accomplish, which is to prevent Al-Qaeda, and then more recently, Daesh, from establishing sanctuaries on Afghan soil under this very Islamist regime, the Taliban,” he continued.

Scarlett also questioned the withdrawal, arguing that a better option would have been to maintain a “modest” military presence in the war-torn country.

He said: “There was another path. There has been a modest troop presence there over the last year, but they weren’t actively engaged in fighting … they were actually providing support.

“And so it isn’t necessarily, ‘Should I stay or should I go?’ It’s whether or not we were willing to maintain a modest presence there to help continue to build capacity and manage risks.”

He added that the withdrawal — which also includes NATO allies — was primarily a US decision, and that questions remain over how it was reached.

Scarlett said: “In a way, it’s been expected, because it’s been the policy to withdraw as part of the negotiated agreement with the Taliban, under the previous administration, but there’s clearly — particularly in Afghanistan, but also really across Europe — quite a degree of surprise.

“There will be tens of thousands of refugees going into Pakistan and possibly into central Asian states. I’m afraid Pakistan will wonder about US sustainability and commitment in the medium-to longer-term.

“There’s obviously an issue of credibility here, not just for the US, but also for the allies,” he concluded.

In Russian Far East city, discontent smolders amid election

In Russian Far East city, discontent smolders amid election
Updated 8 sec ago

In Russian Far East city, discontent smolders amid election

In Russian Far East city, discontent smolders amid election
KHABAROVSK, Russia: The handful of demonstrators gathering each evening in Khabarovsk are a shadow of the masses who took part in an unusually sustained wave of protests last year in the Russian Far Eastern city, but they are a chronic reminder of the political tensions that persist.
The demonstrators have been demanding the release of the region’s popular former governor, Sergei Furgal, who was arrested last year on charges of being involved in killings.
Now, his Kremlin-appointed replacement, Mikhail Degtyaryov, is on the ballot for governor in the three days of regional voting that concludes Sunday. The regional election is taking place at the same time that Russians are voting for members of the State Duma, the national parliament.
The race for governor is being closely watched to gauge how much anger remains in the region, located seven time zones and 6,100 kilometers (3,800 miles) east of Moscow.
“The region really worries the Kremlin because they don’t want a repeat of those incidents (last years’ protests) of course. Khabarovsk is now under close supervision,” said Andrei Kolesnikov of the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank.
Three other people are on the ballot for governor, but supporters of Furgal and others in the city of about 600,000 complain they are insignificant candidates who were allowed to run to give the appearance of a democratic and competitive race.
“Whoever posed even the smallest threat was barred from running, and they left only spoiler candidates,” said 64-year-old protester Zigmund Khudyakov.
Notably, United Russia — the country’s dominant political party and loyal backer of President Vladimir Putin — is not fielding a candidate for governor in Khabarovsk. Nor is Russia’s second-largest party, the Communists.
Degtyaryov, a member of the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party, is widely believed to be backed by the Kremlin with both advice and money.
The man who wanted to run on the Communist ticket was kept off the ballot because he was unable to get enough signatures from officials. That aspiring candidate, Pyotr Perevezentsev, told The Associated Press that municipal authorities in some districts had been told by their superiors whose nominating petitions to sign.
“People representing the presidential administration curated these elections,” he said.
Separately, Furgal’s son Anton says he was kept off the ballot for the national parliament. “There is an opinion that if my last name had been Ivanov, for example, I would likely be allowed to run,” he said.
Degtyaryov rejects such claims.
“As head of the Khabarovsk regional government, I am obligated to ensure transparent, legal, free and fair elections, and we are following all of these provisions,” he said on a recent televised question-and-answer session with residents.
The weeks of protests that arose after Sergei Furgal’s arrest in July 2020 appeared to catch authorities by surprise. Unlike in Moscow, where police usually move quickly to disperse unsanctioned rallies, authorities didn’t interfere with the unauthorized demonstrations in Khabarovsk, apparently expecting them to fizzle out.
A Liberal Democratic Party member, Furgal won the 2018 regional gubernatorial election even though he had refrained from campaigning and publicly supported his Kremlin-backed rival.
His victory was a humiliating setback for United Russia, which also lost its control over the regional legislature.
While in office, Furgal earned a reputation as a “people’s governor,” cutting his own salary, ordering the sale of an expensive yacht bought by the previous administration, and offering new benefits to residents.
His arrest, which was shown on Russian TV stations, came after the Investigative Committee, the nation’s top criminal investigation agency, said he was accused of involvement in the murders of several businessmen in the region and nearby territories in 2004 and 2005. During interrogation in Moscow, Furgal denied the charges, according to the Tass news agency.
Ultranationalist lawmaker Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a veteran politician with a reputation for outspoken comments and also a member of the Liberal Democrats, once called Furgal “the best governor the region ever had.”
Furgal’s arrest brought hundreds, and then thousands, of people into the streets of Khabarovsk in a regular Saturday protest. A year later, the rallies — albeit much smaller — continue.
Local activists say that’s because of sustained pressure from authorities interested in ensuring Degtyaryov wins the election.
Under new rules enforced by police who monitor and film the protests, the rallies are restricted to 10 people at most. Officers disperse anything larger.
The protesters say they are pressured at work and at university, with some adding that they lost their jobs after being seen at the demonstrations.
Many wear T-shirts with the face of imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny, while others carry signs depicting Furgal or denouncing the new governor.
“We constantly live in fear because any day we can be arrested,” said Denis Pedish, a 47-year-old education worker who says he now comes to protests with a packed bag of essentials in case he is detained.
“It’s difficult. But people have hope and faith and are actively fighting the lawlessness of the authorities and the lawlessness of the elections, which are a laughingstock for the world to see,” Pedish said.

UN concerned about detained migrants vanishing in Libya

UN concerned about detained migrants vanishing in Libya
Updated 18 September 2021

UN concerned about detained migrants vanishing in Libya

UN concerned about detained migrants vanishing in Libya
  • The number of migrants intercepted and returned to Libya so far this year is more than double the number for 2020

ON BOARD THE GEO BARENTS IN THE MEDITERRANEAN SEA: A UN migration agency official expressed concerns Friday over the disappearance of thousands of Europe-bound migrants who were intercepted and returned to Libya as more and more desperate people risk their lives trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe.
According to Safa Msehli, a spokeswoman for the International Organization for Migration, the Libyan coast guard, which receives funds from the European Union, intercepted more than 24,000 Europe-bound migrants in the Mediterranean so far this year, including over 800 this week alone.
However, only 6,000 have been accounted for in official detention centers in the North African country, she said. The fate and whereabouts of thousands of other migrants remain unknown, she added.
“We fear that many are ending up in the hands of criminal groups and traffickers, while others are being extorted for release,” Msehli said.
A spokesman for Libya’s Interior Ministry, which oversees the detention centers, did not immediately respond to a request by The Associated Press for comment.
Libya has for years been a hub for African and Middle Eastern migrants fleeing war and poverty in their countries and hoping for a better life in Europe. The oil-rich country plunged into chaos following a NATO-backed uprising that toppled and killed longtime autocrat Muammar Qaddafi in 2011.
Traffickers have exploited the chaos and often pack desperate families into ill-equipped rubber or wooden boats that stall and founder along the perilous Central Mediterranean route. Thousands have drowned along the way. They have been implicated in widespread abuses of migrants, including torture and abduction for ransom.
The number of migrants intercepted and returned to Libya so far this year is more than double the number for 2020, when more than 11,890 were brought back to shore.
Those returned to shore have been taken to government-run detention centers, where they are often abused and extorted for ransom under the very nose of UN officials. They are often held in miserable conditions. Libya’s government receives millions in European aid money paid to slow the tide of migrants crossing the Mediterranean.
Guards have been accused of sexually assaulting female migrants in at least one government-run detention center. Many migrants also simply disappear from the detention centers, sold to traffickers or to other centers, The Associated Press reported in 2019.
More than 1,100 migrants were reported dead or presumed dead in numerous boat mishaps and shipwrecks off Libya so far this year, compared to at least 978 reported dead or presumed dead during all of last year, according to IOM.

China enters Taiwan air defense zone a day after military budget boost

China enters Taiwan air defense zone a day after military budget boost
Updated 18 September 2021

China enters Taiwan air defense zone a day after military budget boost

China enters Taiwan air defense zone a day after military budget boost
  • Speaking on Friday, Taiwan Premier Su Tseng-chang said the government had to take the threat from China seriously

TAIPEI: Taiwan’s air force scrambled on Friday to warn away 10 Chinese aircraft that entered its air defense zone, Taiwan’s defense ministry said, the day after the island announced a $9 billion boost to military spending to counter the threat from China.
Chinese-claimed Taiwan has complained for a year or more of repeated missions by China’s air force near the democratically governed island, often in the southwestern part of its air defense zone close to the Taiwan-controlled Pratas Islands.
The latest Chinese mission involved 6 J-16 and 2 J-11 fighters plus one anti-submarine and one reconnaissance aircraft, the Taiwan ministry said.
Taiwan sent combat aircraft to warn away the Chinese aircraft, while missile systems were deployed to monitor them, the ministry said.
The Chinese fighters flew in an area close to the Pratas, while the anti-submarine and reconnaissance aircraft flew into the Bashi Channel that separates Taiwan from the Philippines, according to a map that the ministry issued.
Warships, early warning aircraft and bombers were deployed on Friday in patrols and drills aimed at improving the joint combat capabilities of China’s military in the area, a spokesman for China’s Eastern Theater Command said in a statement on Saturday.
The incident came a day after Taiwan proposed boosting military spending by $8.7 billion over the next five years, including on new missiles, warning of an urgent need to upgrade weapons in the face of a “severe threat” from China.
The Chinese patrols and drills also coincided a transit by a US destroyer in the Taiwan Strait on Friday, which the US Navy called a “routine” passage through international waters.
The Eastern Theater Command, which overseas Chinese military in eastern China, said on Saturday in a separate statement that the USS Barry was monitored on its entire course.
Speaking on Friday, Taiwan Premier Su Tseng-chang said the government had to take the threat from China seriously.
“The Chinese Communists plot against us constantly,” he said.
Taiwan’s defense spending “is based on safeguarding national sovereignty, national security, and national security. We must not relax. We must have the best preparations so that no war will occur,” he added.
China’s government, for its part, criticized Taiwan Foreign Minister Joseph Wu on Friday for comments this week in which he said Taiwan was a “sea fortress” blocking China’s expansion into the Pacific.
Wu’s “aim is to deceive public opinion, to rope in and collude with anti-China foreign forces,” China’s Taiwan Affairs Office said in a statement.

Australia: France’s recall of ambassador over scrapped submarines deal regretful

Australia: France’s recall of ambassador over scrapped submarines deal regretful
Updated 18 September 2021

Australia: France’s recall of ambassador over scrapped submarines deal regretful

Australia: France’s recall of ambassador over scrapped submarines deal regretful
  • Australia scrapped its $66 billion contract with France in favor of a deal with the US and UK for at least 8 nuclear-power subs

CANBERRA: Australia said Saturday it was noting with regret France’s recall of its ambassador over the surprise cancelation of a submarine contract in favor of a US deal.
France recalled its ambassadors to Australia and the United States on Friday in an unprecedented show of anger over a deal among the United States, Australia and Britain to provide Australia with a fleet of at least eight nuclear-power submarines.
The deal scraps a 90 billion Australian dollar ($66 billion) contract with French majority state-owned Naval Group, signed in 2016, to build 12 conventional diesel-electric submarines.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne’s office said in a statement: “We note with regret France’s decision to recall its Ambassador to Australia for consultations following the decision on the Attack Class project.”
“Australia understands France’s deep disappointment with our decision, which was taken in accordance with our clear and communicated national security interests,” the statement said. It added that Australia valued its relationship to France and looked forward to future engagements together.
Payne and Defense Minister Peter Dutton are currently in the United States for annual talks with their US counterparts and their first with President Joe Biden’s administration.
French Ambassador to Australia Jean-Pierre Thebault said Australia never mentioned that the project could be scrapped.
Thebault told Australian Broadcasting Corp. in an interview recorded on Friday that he found out about the US submarine deal: “Like everybody, thanks to the Australian press.”
“We never were informed about any substantial changes,” Thebault said. “There were many opportunities and many channels. Never was such a change mentioned.”
After the US deal was made public this week, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he told French President Emanuel Macron in June that there were “very real issues about whether a conventional submarine capability” would address Australia’s strategic security needs in the Indo-Pacific.
Morrison was in Paris on his way home from a Group of Seven nations summit in Britain where he had talks with soon-to-be-alliance partners Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Thebault said he had also been at the meeting with Macron and Morrison.
Morrison mentioned “there were changes in the regional situation,” but gave no indication that Australia was considering changing to nuclear propulsion, Thebault said.
“The relationship between France and Australia was built on trust,” Thebault said.
“So fundamentally, everything was built on trust. Everything was supposed to be done in full transparency between the two partners,” he added.
Thebault said difficulties the project had encountered were normal for its scale and large transfers of technologies.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in a statement on Friday that recalling the two ambassadors, on request from Macron, “is justified by the exceptional seriousness of the announcements” made by Australia and the United States.
Le Drian said Australia’s decision to scrap the submarine purchase in favor of nuclear subs built with US technology is “unacceptable behavior between allies and partners.”
Senior opposition lawmaker Mark Dreyfus called on the Australian government to fix its relationship with France.
“The impact on our relationship with France is a concern, particularly as a country with important interests in our region,” Dreyfus said.
“The French were blindsided by this decision and Mr. Morrison should have done much more to protect the relationship. The ... government needs to explain what it is going to do to fix this important relationship,” he added.


In this Feb. 11, 2019, photo, Australia's PM Scott Morrison (C) shakes hands with France's Defense Minister Florence Parly (R) and Australian Defense Minister Christopher Pyne after signing a $66 billion deal in Canberra. (AFP)

US panel recommends Covid boosters for people 65 and older

US panel recommends Covid boosters for people 65 and older
Updated 18 September 2021

US panel recommends Covid boosters for people 65 and older

US panel recommends Covid boosters for people 65 and older
  • The panel voted 16-2 against granting a third dose full approval
  • Tens of millions of Americans will soon be eligible for a third shot

WASHINGTON: A panel of leading US medical experts advising the government voted in favor of authorizing boosters of Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine for everyone aged 65 and up, as well as people at high risk of developing severe Covid.
The same committee however rejected an initial proposal, submitted by Pfizer and backed by President Joe Biden’s administration, to fully approve boosters to everyone aged 16 and over.
The decisions came after a day-long meeting full of data presentations and at times charged debate that was convened by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Tens of millions of Americans will soon be eligible for a third shot.
“I think this should demonstrate to the public that the members of this committee are independent of the FDA, and that in fact we do bring our voices to the table,” said Archana Chatterjee, dean of Chicago Medical School.
The panel — which included vaccinologists, infectious disease researchers, and epidemiologists — concluded that the benefit-risk balance differed for younger people, especially males at risk for myocarditis.
A clinical trial for the booster involved just over 300 people, which they felt was too small to be able to draw firm conclusions about safety.
The panel voted 16-2 against granting a third dose full approval.
They were then presented with a new motion, and voted 18-0 for granting emergency authorization for people aged over 65 and those at high risk. They agreed this should extend to health care workers and people at high risk of occupational exposure.
Now the issue turns to another committee, this time convened by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on September 22-23 to further define who is eligible and decide on rollout.
Pfizer will work with the FDA to address the committee’s questions as “we continue to believe in the benefits of a booster dose for a broader population,” Kathrin Jansen, head of vaccine research and development at the company, said in a statement.
Even prior to the meeting, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had struck a cautious note.
In its briefing document, the FDA stated: “Data indicate that currently US-licensed or authorized Covid-19 vaccines still afford protection against severe Covid-19 disease and death.”
Two senior FDA officials meanwhile co-signed a Viewpoint in The Lancet this week opposing boosters for the general population, in what was seen as a rebuke of the White House for taking a decision before consulting its scientific agencies, effectively placing the cart before the horse.
At the meeting, Pfizer officials cited studies that demonstrated waning immunity against infection several months out from the first two doses.
“The demonstrated safety and effectiveness of a third dose support adding a booster dose to the vaccination schedule,” said Donna Boyce, Pfizer’s senior vice president of global regulatory affairs.
But a growing body of US research — including a dataset presented by Pfizer itself at Friday’s meeting — has shown two doses continue to confer high protection against severe outcomes, albeit at slightly diminished levels for the elderly.
Pfizer also presented data showing boosters increased antibody levels against the Delta variant, but an FDA scientist countered that these lab studies could not translate directly to efficacy estimates.
Sharon Alroy Preis, an official with Israel’s health ministry, presented data from her country which ran a booster campaign after experiencing a Delta wave, and has approved boosters for everyone aged 12 and up.
Jay Portnoy, a pediatrician with Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, said the Israeli experience should serve as a warning beacon and that the United States should follow its lead.
But most of the panel did not see the two countries as closely analogous. Because the US has a much lower overall vaccination rate, the unvaccinated are the primary drivers of spread, rather than breakthrough cases among the vaccinated.