US commander: Al-Qaeda numbers in Afghanistan up ‘slightly’

US commander: Al-Qaeda numbers in Afghanistan up ‘slightly’
Afghan people sit inside a US military aircraft to leave Afghanistan, at the military airport in Kabul on August 19, 2021 after the Taliban's military takeover of Afghanistan. (AFP)
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Updated 10 December 2021

US commander: Al-Qaeda numbers in Afghanistan up ‘slightly’

US commander: Al-Qaeda numbers in Afghanistan up ‘slightly’
  • The US says it will rely on airstrikes from drones and other aircraft based beyond Afghanistan’s borders to respond to any extremist threats against the US homeland

WASHINGTON: The Al-Qaeda extremist group has grown slightly inside Afghanistan since US forces left in late August, and the country’s new Taliban leaders are divided over whether to fulfill their 2020 pledge to break ties with the group, the top US commander in the region said Thursday.
Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of US Central Command, said in an interview with The Associated Press that the departure of US military and intelligence assets from Afghanistan has made it much harder to track Al-Qaeda and other extremist groups inside Afghanistan.
“We’re probably at about 1 or 2 percent of the capabilities we once had to look into Afghanistan,” he said, adding that this makes it “very hard, not impossible” to ensure that neither Al-Qaeda nor the Daesh group’s Afghanistan affiliate can pose a threat to the United States.
Speaking at the Pentagon, McKenzie said it’s clear that Al-Qaeda is attempting to rebuild its presence inside Afghanistan, which was the base from which it planned the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks against the United States. He said some militants are coming into the country through its porous borders, but it is hard for the US to track numbers.
The US invasion that followed the Sept. 11 attacks led to a 20-year war that succeeded initially by removing the Taliban from power but ultimately failed. After President Joe Biden announced in April that he was withdrawing completely from Afghanistan, the Taliban systematically overpowered Afghan government defenses and seized Kabul, the capital, in August.
McKenzie and other senior US military and national security officials had said before the US withdrawal that it would complicate efforts to keep a lid on the Al-Qaeda threat, in part because of the loss of on-the-ground intelligence information and the absence of a US-friendly government in Kabul. The US says it will rely on airstrikes from drones and other aircraft based beyond Afghanistan’s borders to respond to any extremist threats against the US homeland.
McKenzie said no such strikes have been conducted since the US completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan on Aug. 30. He added that America’s ability to conduct such strikes is based on the availability of intelligence, overhead imagery and other information and communications, “and that architecture is still being developed right now.”
Al-Qaeda is among numerous extremist groups inside Afghanistan. After 2001, it lost most of its numbers and its ability to directly threaten US territory, but McKenzie said it retains “an aspirational desire” to attack the United States. During their first period of rule in Kabul, from 1996 to 2001, the Taliban gave haven to Al-Qaeda and refused Washington’s demand after 9/11 to expel the group and turn over its leader, Osama bin Laden. The Taliban and Al-Qaeda have maintained ties ever since.
“So we’re still trying to sort out exactly how the Taliban is going to proceed against them, and I think over the month or two it’ll become a little more apparent to us,” he said.
Similarly, McKenzie said it’s not yet clear how strongly Taliban will go after the Daesh group, also known as Daesh, which has violently attacked the Taliban across the country. The United States blamed Daesh for an Aug. 26 suicide bombing at Kabul airport that killed 13 American service members in the final days of the US evacuation.
Daesh was “reinvigorated,” McKenzie said, by the release of numerous Daesh fighters from Afghan prisons in mid-August. He said both Daesh and Al-Qaeda are recruiting from inside and outside Afghanistan.
“So certainly we should expect a resurgent Daesh. It would be very surprising if that weren’t the case,” he said, adding, “It remains to be seen that the Taliban are going to be able to take effective action against them.”
He called Al-Qaeda a more difficult problem for the Taliban because of their longstanding ties.
“So I think there are internal arguments inside the Taliban about the way forward,” he said. “What we would like to see from the Taliban would be a strong position against Al-Qaeda,” which they promised as part of the February 2020 Doha agreement that committed the United States to fully withdrawing from Afghanistan. “But I don’t believe that’s yet been fully realized.”
McKenzie declined to provide an estimate of the number of Al-Qaeda operatives inside Afghanistan.
“I think it’s probably slightly increased,” he said. “There’s a presence. We thought it was down pretty small, you know, toward the end of the conflict. I think some people have probably come back in. But it’s one of the things we look at, but I wouldn’t be confident giving you a number right now.”


Divided UN council fails to approve more top Taliban travel

Divided UN council fails to approve more top Taliban travel
Updated 20 August 2022

Divided UN council fails to approve more top Taliban travel

Divided UN council fails to approve more top Taliban travel
UNITED NATIONS: The divided UN Security Council failed to reach agreement on whether to extend travel exemptions for 13 Taliban officials now ruling Afghanistan so they will expire at midnight Friday.
UN diplomats said Russia and China want to allow all 13 to continue to travel while the US and Western nations are determined to cut the number to protest the Taliban’s rollback of women’s rights and failure to form an inclusive government as it promised.
Russia and China asked for more time Friday evening to consider the latest US proposal, the Security Council diplomats said, speaking on condition of anonymity because discussions have been private.
So, the travel ban will be restored on all 13 Taliban officials until Monday afternoon at the earliest when Russia and China must now respond to the US proposal.
Dozens of Taliban members have been on the UN sanctions blacklist for years, subject to a travel ban, asset freeze and arms embargo. But some Taliban officials were granted waivers so they could travel to participate in talks aimed at restoring peace and stability to Afghanistan.
Since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan last August 15 as US and NATO forces were in the final stages of their chaotic withdrawal from the country after 20 years, as many as 700 people have been killed and 1,400 wounded even though security on the whole has improved, according to a report last month by the UN political mission in Afghanistan. It highlighted how women have been stripped of many of their human rights, barred from secondary education and subjected to restrictions on their movements.
In June, the Security Council committee monitoring sanctions against the Taliban banned two Taliban officials from traveling in response to their crackdown on women — Said Ahmad Shaidkhel, the acting deputy education minister, and Abdul Baqi Basir Awal Shah, also known as Abdul Baqi Haqqani, the acting Minister of Higher Education.
With the expiration of travel waivers for the remaining 13 Taliban officials looming, the United State on Thursday proposed re-imposing the travel ban on seven of them and keeping the exemption for six others, but limiting their travel only to Qatar, where US-Taliban talks have taken place, council diplomats said.
Russia and China made a rival proposal that all 13 Taliban officials be granted travel exemptions for 90 days, but only to go to Russia, China, Qatar and “regional countries,” the diplomats said.
Russia and China objected to the US proposal, the diplomats said, and the United Kingdom, France and Ireland opposed the Russia-China proposal, insisting that the exemption can’t continue for all 13 officials because of the Taliban’s lack of progress on meeting its commitments on women, forming an inclusive government and other issues.
On Friday afternoon, diplomats said, the US revised its proposal which would ban travel for seven of the Taliban officials and keep the travel waivers for six others for 90 days with no geographic limits.
That’s the proposal that Russia and China are now considering.

Pence says he didn’t leave office with classified material

Pence says he didn’t leave office with classified material
Updated 20 August 2022

Pence says he didn’t leave office with classified material

Pence says he didn’t leave office with classified material

DES MOINES, Iowa: Former Vice President Mike Pence said Friday that he didn’t take any classified information with him when he left office.

Pence made the comment during an interview with The Associated Press in Iowa a week and a half after the FBI seized classified and top secret information during a search at former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate.

Asked directly if he retained any classified information upon leaving office, Pence said, “No, not to my knowledge.”

The disclosure — which would typically be unremarkable for a former vice president — is notable given that FBI agents took 11 sets of classified records from his former boss’s estate on Aug. 8 while investigating potential violations of three different federal laws. Trump has claimed that the documents seized by agents were “all declassified” and argued that he would have turned them over if the Justice Department had asked.

Despite the inclusion of material marked “top secret” in the government’s list of items recovered from Mar-a-Lago, Pence said, “I honestly don’t want to prejudge it before until we know all the facts.”

Pence on Friday also weighed in on Republican US Rep. Liz Cheney’s primary defeat earlier in the week to a rival backed by Trump. Cheney, who is arguably Trump’s most prominent Republican critic, has called the former president “a very grave threat and risk to our republic” and further raised his ire through her role as vice chair of the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the US Capitol.

“My reaction was, the people of Wyoming have spoken,” said Pence, who was targeted at the Capitol that day by angry rioters, including some who chanted, “Hang Mike Pence!” “And, you know, I accept their judgment about the kind of representation they want on Capitol Hill.”

Pence said he has “great respect” for Cheney’s father, former Vice President Dick Cheney, who served two terms under President George W. Bush.

“And I appreciate the conservative stance Congresswoman Cheney has taken over the years,” Pence continued. “But I’ve been disappointed in the partisan taint of the Jan. 6 committee from early on.”

Speaking further about the search of Mar-a-Lago, the former vice president raised the possibility, as he has previously, that the investigation was politically motivated and called on Attorney General Merrick

Garland to disclose more details on what led authorities to conduct the search.

“The concern that millions of Americans felt is only going to be resolved with daylight,” Pence said Friday. “I know that’s not customary in an investigation. But this is unprecedented action by the Justice Department, and I think it merits an unprecedented transparency.”

Days ago, while speaking at a political breakfast in New Hampshire, Pence urged his fellow Republicans to stop lashing out at rank-and-file members of the FBI over the search of Mar-a-Lago. At the Wednesday event, he sought to tamp down on some of the increasing threats against the FBI by ardent Trump supporters who are angry that Trump’s home was searched.

“The Republican Party is the party of law and order,” Pence said Wednesday. “Our party stands with the men and women who stand on the thin blue line at the federal and state and local level, and these attacks on the FBI must stop.”

Pence was in Iowa on Friday as part of a two-day trip to the state, which is scheduled to host the 2024 leadoff Republican presidential caucuses. Pence said Friday that he would make a decision early next year about whether to run for the White House, a move that his aides have said will be independent of what Trump decides to do.

Having visited the Iowa State Fair on Friday afternoon, Pence also headlined a fundraiser earlier in the day for Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley and was scheduled to speak to a Christian conservative group and a northern Iowa county Republican Party fundraiser before leaving Saturday.


22 million face starvation in Horn of Africa: WFP

22 million face starvation in Horn of Africa: WFP
Updated 40 min 36 sec ago

22 million face starvation in Horn of Africa: WFP

22 million face starvation in Horn of Africa: WFP
  • Around 47 percent “of the surveyed households are classified as... severely food insecure,” the report said, compared to nearly 40 percent of the population according to a WFP assessment published in January this year

NAIROBI: The number of people at risk of starvation in the drought-ravaged Horn of Africa has increased to 22 million, the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) said Friday.
Years of insufficient rainfall across Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia have caused the worst drought in 40 years and conditions akin to famine in the hardest-hit areas, aid groups say.
An unprecedented four failed rainy seasons has killed millions of livestock, destroyed crops, and forced 1.1 million people from their homes in search of food and water.
“The world needs to act now to protect the most vulnerable communities from the threat of widespread famine in the Horn of Africa,” said WFP executive director David Beasley.
“There is still no end in sight to this drought crisis, so we must get the resources needed to save lives and stop people plunging into catastrophic levels of hunger and starvation.”
At the start of 2022, WFP warned that 13 million people across the three countries faced starvation, and appealed for donors to open their purses at a time of great need.
But funds were slow in coming, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine among other crises drawing attention from the disaster in the Horn, humanitarian workers said.
Russia’s invasion also sent global food and fuel prices soaring, making aid delivery more expensive.
By the middle of the year, when rain failed to appear again in Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia, the number in extreme need soared to 20 million and warnings of famine grew more urgent.
WFP says by September, at least 22 million people could face starvation.
“This number will continue to climb, and the severity of hunger will deepen if the next rainy season... fails and the most vulnerable people do not receive humanitarian relief,” WFP said in a statement.
“Needs will remain high into 2023 and famine is now a serious risk, particularly in Somalia” where nearly half the population of 15 million is seriously hungry.
WFP said $418 million was needed over the next six months to help the worst-off.
Last month, the United States announced $1.2 billion in emergency food and malnutrition treatment to help avert famine in the Horn of Africa, and urged other nations to do more.


Putin to allow inspectors to visit Russia-occupied nuclear plant

Putin to allow inspectors to visit Russia-occupied nuclear plant
Updated 20 August 2022

Putin to allow inspectors to visit Russia-occupied nuclear plant

Putin to allow inspectors to visit Russia-occupied nuclear plant

ODESSA: Russian President Vladimir Putin has agreed that independent inspectors can travel to the Moscow-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, the French presidency said Friday, as fears grow over fighting near the site.
The apparent resolution of a dispute over whether inspectors travel via Ukraine or Russia came as a US defense official said Ukraine’s forces had brought the Russian advance to a halt.
“You are seeing a complete and total lack of progress by the Russians on the battlefield,” the official said, speaking on grounds of anonymity.
According to French President Emmanuel Macron’s office, Putin had “reconsidered” his demand that the International Atomic Energy Agency travel through Russia to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear site.
The UN nuclear watchdog’s chief, Rafael Grossi “welcomed recent statements indicating that both Ukraine and Russia supported the IAEA’s aim to send a mission to” the plant.
Meanwhile, UN chief Antonio Guterres urged Moscow’s forces occupying Zaporizhzhia not to disconnect the facility from the grid and potentially cut supplies to millions of Ukrainians.
A flare-up in fighting around the Russian-controlled nuclear power station — with both sides blaming each other for attacks — has raised the spectre of a disaster worse than in Chernobyl.
The Kremlin said that Putin and Macron agreed that the IAEA should carry out inspections “as soon as possible” to “assess the real situation on the ground.”
Putin also “stressed that the systematic shelling by the Ukrainian military of the territory of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant creates the danger of a large-scale catastrophe,” the Kremlin added.
The warning came just a day after Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Guterres, meeting in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, sounded the alarm over the fighting, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky urged the United Nations to secure the site.
“This summer may go down in the history of various European countries as one of the most tragic of all time,” Zelensky said in his Friday evening address.
“No instruction at any nuclear power plant in the world provides a procedure in case a terrorist state turns a nuclear power plant into a target.”
During his visit to the southern port of Odessa on Friday, the UN secretary general said that “obviously, the electricity from Zaporizhzhia is Ukrainian electricity. This principle must be fully respected.”
“Naturally, its energy must be used by the Ukrainian people,” he told AFP in separate comments.
On Thursday, Moscow said Kyiv was preparing a “provocation” at the site that would see Russia “accused of creating a man-made disaster at the plant.”
Kyiv, however, insisted that Moscow was planning the provocation, and said Russia’s occupying forces had ordered most staff to stay home Friday.
Guterres visited Odessa as part of an effort to make more Ukrainian grain available to poor countries struggling with soaring food prices, after a landmark deal with Russia last month to allow its export.
The deal, the only significant agreement between Russia and Ukraine since Moscow invaded in February, has so far seen 25 boats carrying some 600,000 tons of agricultural products depart from three designated ports, Kyiv has said.
Guterres is expected to head to Turkey after Odessa to visit the Joint Coordination Center, the body tasked with overseeing the accord.
The grain deal has held, but brought little respite along the sprawling front lines after nearly six months of fighting between US-supplied Ukrainian forces and the Russian military.
The United States on Friday announced a new $775 million arms package, including more precision-guided missiles for Himars systems that enable Ukraine to strike Russian targets far behind the front lines.
The primary tool of Moscow’s forces has been artillery barrages, and recent bombardments over the eastern Donetsk region — which has been partially controlled by Russian proxies since 2014 — left several dead.
The Ukrainian head of the region, Pavlo Kyrylenko, said on social media Friday that Russian strikes had killed five people and wounded 10 more in three settlements.
Strikes early Friday in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, left one person dead and damaged a school and a private business, the head of the region said.


Greece: 71 migrants aboard boat reaching southern island

Greece: 71 migrants aboard boat reaching southern island
Updated 20 August 2022

Greece: 71 migrants aboard boat reaching southern island

Greece: 71 migrants aboard boat reaching southern island
  • Some 170 people, the vast majority from Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran, had arrived at Kythera on another two sailing boats on Wednesday

ATHENS: Greek authorities on Friday raised to 71 the number of migrants aboard a sailboat that reached the southern island of Kythera a day earlier, the third crammed vessel to do so in two days.
The boat, a sailing catamaran, was located in the early hours of Thursday off Kythera’s western coastline.
The coast guard said seven women and 12 minors were among the 71 people aboard.
Nine were from Iran and the rest from Iraq.
On Thursday, the coast guard had said initial indications were that the boat had been carrying 67 people.

Humanitarianism is very important, but the people who wish to come to the EU due to the inequalities that exist in the world are hundreds of millions.

Notis Mitarachi, Migration minister

Some 170 people, the vast majority from Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran, had arrived at Kythera on another two sailing boats on Wednesday.
The coast guard said five people were arrested on suspicion of migrant smuggling — three Turkish nationals who had been on board the first vessel, and two Russian nationals on the second.
Located off the southern tip of the Peloponnese, Kythera isn’t a target destination for the thousands of people fleeing conflict and poverty in the Middle East, Asia and Africa.
Most attempting to make it into the EU cross from the Turkish coast to nearby Greece’s eastern Aegean islands.
But with Greek authorities increasing patrols in the area and facing persistent reports of push-backs — summary and illegal deportations of new arrivals back to Turkey without allowing them to apply for asylum — more people are attempting a much longer and more dangerous route directly to Italy.
Greek authorities deny they carry out pushbacks.
On Friday, Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi said on Greece’s Skai radio that migration flows into Greece were at their lowest in a decade last year, with 8,500 people arriving in the country in 2021.
Skai radio quoted him as saying that 2022 was expected to see the second-lowest number of arrivals in the past 10 years, with around 7,000 people having arrived so far.
Greece has been widely criticized by aid groups, asylum seekers and some European politicians for using heavy-handed tactics, particularly pushbacks, to keep arrival numbers down.
“Humanitarianism is very important, but the people who wish to come to the EU due to the inequalities that exist in the world are hundreds of millions,” Skai quoted Mitarachi as saying.
“We’re not speaking of a closed Europe, but nor of a Europe in which traffickers decide who gets in.”
Mitarachi repeated that a 38-km fence along Greece’s northeastern land border with Turkey would be extended by another 80 km.
Greek authorities came under withering criticism last week over a group of mainly Syrians who had been trapped for days on an islet in the Evros River that runs along the Greek-Turkish border in Greece’s northeast.
Greek officials insist the islet is on the Turkish side of the border.
Police on Monday said they found 38 people on the Greek side of the border, away from the river.
The group told authorities a five-year-old girl had died of a scorpion sting on the islet during the ordeal.
Mitarachi said earlier this week that Greece would work with the International Red Cross and Red Crescent for the recovery of the child’s body.