Sunday, August 16, 2015

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Profound lessons must be learned from Tianjin blasts: Chinese leaders

Chinese leaders on Saturday urged authorities to learn from the"extremely profoundlessons paid for with blood as death toll from massive warehouseexplosions in Tianjin rose to 104.

In a written instructionPresident Xi Jinping said that the Tianjin blasts and a string ofserious accidents recently exposed severe problems in the work safety sectorandauthorities must always keep "safe developmentand "people's interest firstin mind toavoid such accidents.
He demands a better emergency response mechanismgreater implementation of worksafety regulationsand careful checks of all possible safety risksto achieve "substantialimprovementin work safety.
The accountability system must be put into practice earnestly in order to preventdereliction of dutyhe added.
Premier Li Keqiang urged authorities to take forceful and effective measures to rectify theweak link so as to formulate a long-term mechanism to avoid the repetition of accidents.
The State Council on Saturday called a national tele-conference to lay out work on anational safety inspection that will target industries related with dangerous chemicals,explosivesfireworkselevatorsnon-coal minespublic transport and ports.
The repeated emphasis on safety followed the massive explosions at a warehouse storingdangerous chemicals in north China's Tianjin City on Wednesday nightkilling at least 104peopleand injuring more than 720.
The warehouse was owned by Tianjin Dongjiang Port Rui Hai International Logistics Co.Ltd., a storage and distribution center for containers of dangerous goods.
The State Council Work Safety Commission on Friday said the blasts revealed a lack ofsafety awareness among businesseslax implementation of safety regulationsirregularpractices among workers and weak emergency responses to incidents.

China - People's Daily slams lack of sincerity in Abe's WWII statement

China's People's Daily on Saturday called on Japan to face up to itswartime history while lamenting the lack of "sincerityin Japanese Prime Minister ShinzoAbe's statement to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.
In his statement on FridayAbe mentioned previous government apologiesbut dodgedoffering his own apology.
"Japan has repeatedly expressed the feelings of deep remorse and heartfelt apology for itsactions during the war," said the prime ministeradding "such a position articulated by theprevious cabinets will remain unshakable into the future."
But the prime minister also said that Japan must not let its future generations "bepredestined to apologize."
The lack of sincerity in Abe's statement was a "far cryfrom that of his predecessorTomiichi Murayama two decades agoa commentary carried by the People's Daily readSaturdayexactly 70 years after late Emperor Hirohito announced Japan's surrender onAug. 15, 1945.
"Up to this dayJapan has yet to manage a clean break-up with its disgraceful past," thecommentary read.
True introspection and apology should come in the form of respect and conformation tothe peaceful post-war orderit went on.
But by pushing ahead a controversial security bill and revising the country's pacifistConstitutionthe Japanese government had blindly and unscrupulously sought tochallenge history and justiceit said.
The commentary said descendants of any country in the world must inherit theirpredecessorspast attainments along with responsibilities brought by their forebearspriorcrimes.
"Only by facing up to its aggressionist and colonial past and through sincere introspectionand apology could Japan truly take on its historical responsibilitywin back credibilityfrom its Asian neighbors and the international community and create a new future," itread.

Russia - Demand for Assad’s removal may bring chaos to Syria, successes to IS

Russian experts do not see any signs of Moscow’s readiness to downscale support for the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — something that commentators in the West are speculating about. The case in hand is not the salvation of Assad for Assad’s own sake and his fate should not be a top priority at talks with the Syrian opposition, they indicate.
The main thing now is to agree on the country’s future while the destiny of the Syrian leader can be decided later on in line with democratic procedures. And if the sides fail to reach agreement, Syria will be doomed to chaos and the thriving of the Islamic State terrorist grouping.
The US and Saudi Arabia did not support Russia’s proposal to set up an antiterrorist coalition embracing all the forces opposed to the terrorist grouping, including the Syrian Armed Forces, largely because they do not want to have any business with the Assad government.
On Thursday, Moscow hosted a delegation of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, which belongs to the radical wing of Syrian oppositionists. The Kremlin’s attempts to convince it to join forces with the government in fighting against a common enemy, the Islamic State, ended up in a failure again.
Khaled al-Khhodja, the coalition president said it believed Bashar al-Assad was the root-cause of the problem and there could be no solution to it.
The Syrian National Coalition is the only strain of opposition forces in Syria that Moscow is still unable to bring to an inter-Syrian dialogue with the authorities. On the face of it, Russian government officials are confident the downfall of the Assad regime will mean a change in the balance of forces in Syria and will inescapably strengthen the Islamic State’s positions.
"Even if you judge from statements by Russian officials, there are no tokens of Russia’s readiness to jettison Assad anywhere in sight," believes Dr. Vladimir Sotnikov, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
"Assad’s troops make up the main force opposing the Islamic State and if all the attempts to make an arrangement flop and if Assad is removed militarily in the final run, the feuding sections of the opposition will plunge into a struggle for power, and this means the onset of chaos, which the Islamic State surely will make a ploy of," he said.
"We’re saying there is no military solution to the conflict and political tools are needed," Dr. Irina Zvyagelskaya, a professor at the MGIMO Diplomatic University and the Vice-President of the Russian Center for Strategic and International Research.
But political instruments would imply arrangements between the opposition leaders and the Assad regime. "This in turn will bring up a question about Assad’s fate, too."
The problem is that if his fate is placed at the top of the agenda, no kind of agreements will be reached then, Dr. Zvyagelskaya said.
"Imagine any ruler ready to negotiate with the people who believe he shouldn’t exist," she went on. "The result will be his removal, his bowing out of the political arena. And who in his right mind will conduct dialogue on these conditions?"
It is obvious that the dialogue should center on the importance of integrating the opposition, on creating a government of national accord. "And when steps towards stabilization are made, a question on whether Assad will resign and on what terms could be raised in the process of electoral cycles," Dr. Zvyagelskaya said.
"I don’t think Russia can be viewed exactly as an ally of Assad because the problem is much broader," she said. "If Syria is crushed to pieces, all of us do understand what kind of forces will get an extra impetus - not only the Islamic State but a lot of other extremists, too."
"The process will spread far beyond the Middle East," Dr. Zvyagelskaya said. "It will flood not only Syria and the neighboring states but will be easily spelling over borders that will have ceased to exist. On top of all that, one should think about the plight to Syria’s religious and ethnic minorities — the Christians and the Kurds."
"It would be short-sighted to destroy the outlines of political dialogue and place Assad’s destiny at the top of the agenda," she indicated. "Talks have begun. It’s essential to make agreements and stabilize the situation."
"As for Assad, decisions on his future can be made later on in a democratic state where democratic norms will be in effect," Dr. Zvyagelskaya said.

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#Yemen: “Desperation and fear for the future”

By Dr Tammam Aloudat

Dr Tammam Aloudat, Deputy Medical Director for MSF, just returned from an assessment in Ibb, Yemen. He describes the health and humanitarian needs in this personal account.
As we entered the nutrition department of the Mother and Child hospital, a woman sitting at the edge of a bed glanced over at us with suspicion. Strangers usually do not accompany medical staff at this time of the day. The baby was breathing fast and he seemed in pain. I asked his mother’s permission to examine him. She seemed more relaxed once I spoke to her in Arabic. I told her I worked with MSF, and that we were visiting Ibb to assess the health situation and explore ways to support healthcare facilities, which are struggling under a blockade, airstrikes and the war.
The hospital director briefed my colleagues as I continued my conversation with the mother. She told me she had come from a village two hours from Ibb. The worried mother said that her five-month-old was suffering from severe diarrhea and vomiting. As I examined the baby, the pediatrician told me that the baby was suffering from dehydration but had already improved after one day of treatment. The mother smiled as she heard the good news, but soon her face turned gloomy again. When I asked her why, she said she and her husband had had to pay 15,000 YR (around 75 USD) to reach the hospital, and they would have to pay the same to go back; an amount that very few Yemenis can afford and will leave the family in debt for a long time to come.
This is my second visit to Yemen. Since I last came in 2011 some things have not changed at all, such as the kindness and hospitality of people, but also the long power cuts. However, many things have changed for the worse. Today, long queues of cars wait in front of petrol stations, and checkpoints have increased. Yemen’s quiet nights have turned noisy, filled with the sounds of airstrikes and anti-aircraft guns. For me, the biggest difference was that the general sense of optimism had turned into desperation and fear for the future. It is sadly a justified fear, as Yemenis are today living through one of the worst armed conflicts MSF has ever seen.
Later, during a trip to one of Ibb’s schools where people have sought refuge, we met families who had come to the city fleeing areas witnessing fighting or severe bombardment. Many had come from Ta’iz and Al Dhale’, while others had made the long trip from Sana’a or even Sa’ada. Around 20 men and several curious boys gathered around us to chat. Most of the boys stood next to their fathers or older brothers, but one five-year-old boy stood next to me, his tiny hand clinging to my shirt. I was unable to fully concentrate on the discussion as I was reflecting on the inhumane conditions under which Yemen’s children are forced to live today. Most of us in the West can receivemental support after a traumatic event, but the children of Yemen are witnessing a ruthless war, have been forced from their homes and are being deprived of basic needs, healthcare, school and even food, all while their families struggle to survive. I passed my fingers through the boys’ hair in an attempt to offer him some warmth and compassion; two things that are currently in short supply for Yemeni children.
It was the voice of my colleague that brought me back to the conversation. Pointing at me, he was telling a man, “Speak to the doctor.” A tall man with a tired smile, wearing an old shirt and a traditional Yemeni Futah, (a wraparound skirt or kilt) approached me. He explained that he had a heart condition and described how his health had deteriorated since arriving in Ibb. He smiled when I asked him why it had taken him so long to come to hospital. He said that even if the consultation was free, he had no money to buy medicine.
Soon, the discussion turned to the topic of food shortages. During Ramadan, the people living in schools had been offered some food for the Iftar (the evening meal that breaks the daily fast) by their neighbours. Those donations had mostly stopped after Ramadan. International aid organisations are not providing any food aid to the people living in schools, and they cannot afford it by themselves. Yemeni children, who have already suffered from decades of malnutrition, will suffer more if the world does not provide food and medicine to them. Yet efforts in this regard are being hindered by the blockade, fighting and constant bombings.
Yemen is experiencing a ruthless war. I hope next time I visit the country, the war will be over. Until then, MSF will continue to serve the Yemeni people and to project their voices to the world, so that people everywhere else will know the reality beyond the headlines, which talks only about victories, retreats and negotiations.

Fascist Saudi regime announces more restrictions on online media

The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns new restrictions that Saudi authorities said on Tuesday they would be imposing on news websites.
Saud Kateb, the spokesman for the Saudi Ministry of Culture and Information, said that the new requirements include having a commercial registration, an office space, and a municipal license, according to news reports. He also said that editors-in-chief should have college degrees and Saudi citizenship, among other conditions.
"With these restrictions, the Saudi government is sending a clear message that it will be almost impossible for online media to operate with any autonomy," said Sherif Mansour, CPJ's Middle East and North Africa program coordinator, from Washington. "We are deeply concerned by these measures and call on the Saudi government to stop interfering with the flow of news and information."
The requirements will be enforced in October, at the beginning of the new year in the Islamic calendar, according to news reports. News websites have been warned that if they do not comply, they will be shut down and/or lose their license, according to news reports.
According to news reports, Kateb said the new measures were in response to complaints about reports that he said infringed on people's personal rights and "rumors" that led to incitement. Kateb did not name the individuals who filed the complaints.
Last month, a YouTube video circulated on social media and news websites that depicted a girl being sexually harassed by men in the city of Taif. The video incitedanger among Saudi citizens. Police later arrested two individuals accused in the case. In June, WikiLeaks published purported documents from the foreign ministry, which alleged the government bought media outlets and influenced other governments to end an investigation into alleged smuggling by Saudi public figures, according to news reports. The Saudi government later warned Saudi citizens against sharing the documents, according to news reports.
In 2011, Saudi Arabia issued new regulations that contained several vaguely worded provisions that could be used to restrict coverage and granted the Ministry of Culture and Information blanket powers without providing protection to online media against abuse.
Separately, Saudi writer Zuhair Kutbi was arrested at his home in the city of Mecca on July 15, according to news reports. Mohamed Jameel, Kutbi's father, told CPJ that Kutbi was accused of inciting public opinion and offending symbols of the state, among other allegations. Kutbi's father told CPJ the writer was being held in a prison in Mecca. He has not been officially charged.
Kutbi writes regularly for the news website Makkah Online, and has often criticized the government in Saudi Arabia. He has also published several books on topics ranging from politics, geography, history, and social and philosophical issues.
According to news reports and a regional human rights group that cited Kutbi'sTwitter account, he was detained to prevent him from writing or appearing on any media shows in connection with remarks he made as a guest on a June 22 show, called Fi Al-Sameem (In Depth). The show airs on the privately owned channel Rotana Khaleejia.
In the show, Kutbi criticized the country's National Dialogue as a waste of time and money and said his own remarks had been edited out of the broadcast of the most recent meeting. Participants of the National Dialogue gather once a year to discuss issues, including reform, extremism, and national unity, in the country.
"The Saudi government is proving Kutbi's comments about the futility of dialogue by censoring him for his critical views," said CPJ's Mansour. "We call on authorities to immediately release Zuhair Kutbi."
Saudi Arabia is one of the 10 Most Censored Countries, following only North Korea and Eritrea, according to a list compiled by CPJ in 2014.

How Saudi Arabia got its Yemen campaign so wrong

Among Yemen’s myriad misfortunes, its greatest has been being Saudi Arabia’s neighbour.
Saudi Arabia’s founder, King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, thought Yemen so unpredictable that he warned his sons that they had to tame it in order to remain secure. Saudi Arabia is now embarked on its largest ever effort to “tame” Yemen, but it has already been a disaster: thousands are dead, and the unspeakable destruction wrought by the unprecedented Saudi intervention has undone decades of cautious and under-the-radar meddling.
Ever since Saudi Arabia became a state in 1932, it has been quietly but actively involved in Yemeni politics. Saudi money has been the most important source of revenue for the Yemen Arab Republic for decades, even as Riyadh has tried to stop the emergence of a strong central government by funding other groups, including powerful tribes and the sheikhs of Yemen’s most important tribal confederations.
But in the past couple of decades, Saudi-Yemeni relations have become even more complicated. Multiple points of friction emerged after the 1990 unification of Yemen, after which it drew up a democratic constitution and refused to vote for a UN-backed intervention against Saddam Hussein after he annexed Kuwait.
Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, was pursuing a policy of outright cultural colonialism in an area near the blurred Yemeni-Saudi border, which was historically populated by Shia Zaydi tribes. When the border was finalised at the start of the 21st century, it prevented those tribes from moving freely, restricting their animals' grazing routes and threatening their livelihoods. This ultimately gave birth to the Houthi nationalist movement.

Blame game

In most Western narratives, the Houthis are the “bad guys” in Yemen; Yemenis who live in Aden and other areas around Southern Yemen would mostly concur. Iran, which has been vocal in its condemnation of Saudi Arabia and in its support for the Houthis, has also been condemned.
In fact, Western diplomats have been busy trying to prove that Iran has provided training, arms and other support to the Houthis, making their takeover possible.
The scene as Qatari aid arrives in Aden. Reuters/stringer
This is simplistic in the extreme. To account for the war we must first look at the original takeover of the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, by Houthi forces, which as Iona Craig has shown was far too easy.
The events of the takeover in September 2014 indicated the reconfiguration of internal Yemeni power politics, with the Houthis bolstering their position along with the machinations of ex-President Saleh. Saleh is currently the Houthi’s main ally within Yemen – he has disastrously been allowed to remain active in Yemeni politics despite having to give up the presidency after the Arab Spring.
By March 2015 Saleh’s successor, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, was placed under house arrest. The Houthi and Saleh forces started marching towards Aden, indicating that the tentative peace agreement they reached in September 2014 had finally broken down.
The start of the Saudi campaign in March 2015 was not a measure of the new Saudi king’s strength or strategic acumen. It simply demonstrated that the new king and his young defence minister had lost a considerable amount of the influence Saudi Arabia had once held over Yemen, possibly leaving the door open for Iran. They panicked, and responded unwisely – no doubt partly in response to their forefather’s warning.

A Saudi debacle

Recent reports from the front line of Saudi Arabia’s war will superficially be encouraging to Riyadh. Coalition forces have taken over Al-Anand airbasea tank brigade from the UAE has joined the effort. The Houthis have been pushed out of several of their positions in Aden, though the fighting has intensified and shows no signs of waning.
The latest success should not detract from the fact that the Saudi army did very badly in Yemen. It has proved unable to coordinate with Yemeni forces loyal to Hadi in Aden and in the South – indeed, on many occasions it has apparently dropped bombs on them by mistake.
Things aren’t looking good back in Saudi Arabia either. The defence minister in charge of the war, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is flailing. He is mocked as “the little general” because of his disastrous war, especially since he ignored warnings from his advisers that a war in Yemen would be a huge debacle for the Saudi Army.
The hapless Mohammed bin Salman. Reuters/Charles Platiau
His decision to kick off the war with his father’s backing was less an attempt to rescue Yemen from Houthi and Iranian influence than the panicked reaction of an inexperienced prince with too much to prove.
The commitment of Saudi Arabia’s coalition forces to a ground offensive is not good news. The expectation is that this will lead to a protracted conflict with foreign troops bogged down in Yemen’s ragged terrain.
Above all, we should not lose sight of the effect of the war on Yemen’s internal power-politics. The longer the war, the more difficult it will become to predict, contain and control Yemeni stakeholders in the hope of stabilising Yemen and securing the Saudi homeland.

Endless war

The other complicating factor in the Saudi campaign is the West. The UK and the US have both been quick to condemn the Houthis, and are supporting the campaign wholeheartedly – even accelerating arms sales to the kingdom and providing it with targeting assistance.
The only condemnation of all sides to this conflict has come from the European Parliament, which is powerless in this context.
More than 3,000 Yemenis are dead, according to the most recent figures – at least 1,600 of whom were civilians. An unnecessary naval blockade has driven food prices up at least by 400% and strikes have been launched against civilians targets that have been characterised as war crimes.
Powerful international actors ought to reconsider their role in the war and their complicity in the atrocities committed by their allies. But Western support for the Saudi debacle in Yemen seems as solid as ever. That will only continue the escalation of the conflict, heightening the Saudis' feelings of impunity and condemning Yemenis to endless war and increasing hardship – all at the hands of a cocky prince who, unlike his cautious forefathers, has proven to be ineffective and heavy-handed.

Political Commentator: Saudi Arabia Plans Partitioning of Southern Yemen

A Yemeni political activist said that Saudi Arabia has stepped up its unequivocal support to al-Qaeda terrorists and pro-Hadi militias operating in southern Yemen in order to break up the strategic seaport city for its own interests.
“The Saudi regime is attempting to partition Yemen’s Aden as the southern city has a very strategic port. The United Arab Emirate (UAE) is seeking to break up Aden as well in a bid to exploit the resources of the key area,” Ismail Muttahar al-Shami made the remarks on the sidelines of the 8th General Assembly of Islamic Radios and TVs Union (IRTVU) in Tehran in an exclusive interview with the Tasnim News Agency on Sunday.
He added that the Ansarullah resistance group is a popular movement which is fighting against the al-Qaeda, a terrorist group which is enjoying the full support of the Saudi regime. "Also, militias loyal to fugitive Yemeni president Mansour Hadi are closely aligned with the al-Qaeda militants. Al-Qaeda terrorists and pro-Hadi militants are being supported by Saudi Arabia as well as the US." Asked about the main reason behind Saudi war on Yemen, Muttahar al-Shami replied, “Saudi Arabia decided to attack Yemen when it (Yemen) moved to become an independent country. The Saudi regime has waged war against the Arab country as it has always sought to force Yemen to follow its polices.”
Elsewhere in the interview, the Yemeni journalist and activist touched upon the issue of the humanitarian situation in the Arab country, and said, “(it) is getting worse. Yemeni people are suffering from a severe shortage of medicine and medical supplies. Large groups of people have been left abandoned. Hospitals in Yemen are in a desperate situation, scores of people are dying due to lack of oxygen and blood. Hospitals have intermittent electricity and cannot resume their services to people.”
Al-Shami further lambasted the silence of the international community over the massacre of innocent people by Saudi Arabia in Yemen, and said, “I really do not know why the international community has remained silent over the Saudi aggression against Yemen. I only know that all international organizations and the UN follow the US policies in regard to Yemen. They (Saudi Arabia, US) are all benefiting from this war. They are furious because main Yemenis’ slogan is “God is great, Death to America, Death to Israel and Islam will become triumphant”.”
The Sana’a-based political analyst called on various media outlets to support the Yemeni people by extensive coverage of the Arab country’s developments.
“Organizing international seminars and conferences about the Saudi war on Yemen can also play a leading role in ending the crisis in the impoverished country," he went on to add. The 8th General Assembly of Islamic Radios and TVs Union (IRTVU) was opened this morning in a special ceremony held at the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) International Conference Hall in Tehran. Various national and international officials including former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, IRIB Chief Mohammad Sarafraz, and International Adviser to Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ali Akbar Velayati were attending the ceremony.
The summit is attended by 220 TV and radio channels from 35 countries of the world.
On the sidelines of the General Assembly, a Media Technology Exhibition was also opened by Velayati and Karimian, the conference secretary. The motto “The Prophet of Mercy; The Mission of Resistance Media” is chosen for the 8th General Assembly.

Saudi Arabia only after destroying Yemen: Analyst

Press TV has interviewed Hussein al-Bukhaiti, a Yemeni activist and political commentator in Sana’a, to discuss the outcome of the peace talks underway in neighboring Oman on Yemen’s crisis.
The following is an approximate transcript of the interview.
Press TV: Talk to us about the outcome of the ongoing negotiations taking place in Muscat and of course the calls by regional countries, especially Iran, for the Saudis to halt the attacks on the impoverished people of Yemen.
Bukhaiti: There is not a clear idea of what is happening in Muscat, but, according to some sources, things are going really well and both sides in Muscat, with the help of Oman, are getting closer to have an agreement about the next stage of peace in Yemen.
As you mentioned, Iran has always called for [Saudi Arabia] to stop the blockade and to stop the war against Yemen and Iran always believed that any solution in Yemen should be between Yemenis only without any outside interference. But we know that the Saudis are the ones who started the war against Yemen and we have seen now that their allies or coalition controls almost three to four cities in South of Yemen.
We have seen in recent days that al-Qaeda has come back to these areas, for example Aden and Lahij. Two or three days ago, Popular Committees withdrew from Zinjibar, Abyan, and just yesterday, al-Qaeda entered this city and now has key governmental buildings under its control across the city.
So it shows that the only solution for al-Qaeda is that the Ansarullah and the Houthi Popular Committee working side by side with Yemeni army. And they have cleared Zinjibar months ago, it was one of the strongholds of al-Qaeda. Now, al-Qaeda is back under the cover of Saudi war machine.
Press TV: The Saudis have implemented a siege on Yemen, which has further exacerbated the humanitarian situation there. Would you say that the response of the international community has been quite slow with also just not only removing the siege on Yemen but also stop trying to hold the bloodshed and the deaths of innocent Yemenis as well?
Bukhaiti: Of course, the international community has been quiet about what is happening in Yemen. And we have seen that resolution 2216 that came after the Saudi war against Yemen didn’t condemn this war against Yemen, neither did it give a green light to attack Yemen, but it has thanked the Saudi about what they are doing in Yemen. Since then we have not seen any help from the international community.
There is a kind of media blackout used by the Saudis because they do not allow journalists to come into Yemen and any journalists who have to go through Saudi airport when they come to Yemen; and they have refused many entrances to Yemen.
We’ve seen that the United States, Britain, France and many other European countries like Italy  benefit from this war because we’ve seen, during these five months, one of the largest arms deals between Saudi [Persian] Gulf state and those countries in the West.
So, I think, as long as they are making money from this war, they will not stop and they will keep supporting the Saudis. And as well, we are hearing now that the Saudis want to set [up] a new central bank in Aden and there are rumors they want to print new money in Yemen. They do not want us to use rial that we are using now.
So they definitely don’t care about what is happening in Oman at this point. They just want to keep destroying our country; if they couldn’t do it by war, they are going to do this by printing this new type of money and moving the central bank to an area they have under control.   

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Is Afghanistan Backsliding?

By Hannah Bloch

Amid the horrors of war in Syria, Yemen and Iraq, it's become easy to overlook Afghanistan. Remember Afghanistan? Back in the mid-2000s, it was known as the "forgotten war," eclipsed by the bloodshed in Iraq. Now it's overshadowed all over again. But there's plenty of reason to pay attention.
Since taking office 10 months ago, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has made a concerted and politically risky effort to improve his country's fraught relations with neighboring Pakistan, where the Taliban have long enjoyed safe haven. The two countries' relations, which deteriorated over the years, are key to the region's stability.
Ghani visited Pakistan soon after he became president and canceled an arms deal with India that his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, had requested. Perhaps most troubling to his opponents, Ghani also supported a memorandum of understanding for intelligence sharing with Pakistan so the two countries could fight terrorism.
Ghani faced criticism and opposition at home. But unlike Karzai, who rarely missed an opportunity to lash out at Pakistan, he has favored a conciliatory tone.
"We will not permit the past to destroy the future," he said during his Islamabad visit last year.
The problem is the present. Starting Aug. 7, a series of back-to-back bomb and suicide attacks in and around Kabul left hundreds wounded and more than 50 dead. And Ghani finally reached his limit.
A Turning Point?
At an Aug. 10 press conference and on Twitter, he directly blamed Pakistan for the carnage.
"We hoped for peace, but war is declared against us from Pak territory," he tweeted."This in fact puts into a display a clear hostility against a neighbor." He called the violence "a turning point for Afghanistan."
But is it?
"It's really, if anything, a turning-back point," warns Scott Smith, director of the Afghanistan and Central Asia program at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington. He says recent events could jeopardize the progress of the past 10 months.
The past week's attacks, some of which were claimed by the Taliban, came in the wake of a late-July revelation that Taliban leader Mullah Omar is not only dead, but has been gone from this world for a full two years. The bombings may be a signal from a disarrayed movement that its fighting capacity remains undiminished.
Or this could be violent posturing in hopes of securing a powerful seat at a future negotiating table. After Mullah Omar's death was confirmed, hopes had risen for continuing peace talks, but those talks are scuttled for now.
Mullah Akhtar Mansour, Mullah Omar's successor, had seemed to favor the talks. He authorized a first round of Pakistan-brokered talks between Taliban and Afghan representatives and U.S. and Chinese observers, which took place on July 7. But he pulled the plug on the next round, scheduled for July 31. The talks are now postponed indefinitely.
Mansour is not a unifying figure in the way Omar was and lacks universal Taliban support.
But al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was reported to have pledged his allegiance to Mansour on Thursday, a reaffirmation of old ties between two groups that now share a common rival in the self-proclaimed Islamic State, which is slowly making inroads into Afghanistan and is trying to encourage defections and exploit Taliban and al-Qaida weaknesses.
Stretched To The Limit
Meanwhile, this continues to be a year of heavy violence in Afghanistan, with both civilians and Afghan forces suffering unprecedented casualties.
In the first half of 2015, the number of civilians injured or killed reached 4,921,according to the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.
The U.S. combat mission officially ended last Dec. 31. The U.S. still has 9,800 troops in Afghanistan and is spending nearly $60 billion this year on war-related costs, but Americans are serving only in advisory and training roles. Air support and surveillance capabilities support have ended. Most NATO forces have left the country.
Afghan forces are now responsible for the country's security, and they've endured heavy losses so far this year.
"It's been a very difficult fighting season," says the USIP's Smith. More than 4,000 Afghan soldiers and police were killed and nearly 8,000 wounded in the first half of the year, 50 percent more than last year.
"The army," says Smith, "is stretched to its limit."
The nature of the enemy is changing, too, he says, with the arrival in Afghanistan of militants from other parts of the world.
This is "something not envisioned in the planning for the security transition," Smith's USIP colleagues Stephen Hadley and Andrew Wilder wrote in the Washington Post.
During a recent visit to the region, "Perhaps the most troubling thing we learned," they wrote, "was that Afghanistan is once again becoming a haven for transnational terrorist groups, including the brutal Islamic State."
It's a discomfiting reminder of what happened in Afghanistan in the 1990s, when al-Qaida gained its foothold there and the country became increasingly isolated under Taliban rule.
Prospects For Peace
Despite the turbulence of recent weeks, the door to Afghanistan-Pakistan peace isn't shut. Both countries are keeping lines of communication open, and on Thursday, Ghani dispatched a delegation including his foreign minister, intelligence director and acting defense minister to Islamabad.
Pakistan would like peace talks to resume. "Everyone realizes an unstable Afghanistan is not in their interests anymore," says Smith.
But it's impossible to predict how all this will play out. If the Taliban splinters, writes Michael Semple, a former U.N. official who's worked in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, "ultimately the Afghan government, with continuing international support, should be far more confident of ultimately prevailing over a fragmented insurgency than in a fight against a unified Taliban movement."
The key words here: "with continuing international support." That means not forgetting Afghanistan, as the world largely did in the 1990s. We all know what happened next.