Sunday, February 14, 2016
Syrian president Bashar al-Assad spoke to AFP news agency in an exclusive interview on the developments in Syria and the region.
When asked how he thinks he will figure in history, as a man who saved Syria or a man who destroyed it, President Assad said, “This depends on who will write the history. If it is the West, it will give me all the bad attributes. What’s important is how I think. Certainly, and self-evidently, I will seek, and that is what I’m doing now, to protect Syria, not to protect the chair I’m sitting in.”
Ben Carson, at the CBS News Republican presidential debate that took place in Greenville, South Carolina on Saturday said a lot of things. His speech also included a quote falsely attributed to Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, according to The Washington Post.
"Joseph Stalin said if you want to bring America down, you have to undermine three things: our spiritual life, our patriotism and our morality," Carson said.
But the problem is Stalin never said that, at least there are no official records to confirm the statement. Maybe retired surgeon Carson has made up a quote to compare himself with Stalin or he wanted to elevate his standing among his supporters by quoting a historical figure or he's got access to classified files of "untold statements of dead world leaders."
In the telephone conversation Putin said that is important to create a unified anti-terrorism front, rejecting “double standards,” the Kremlin press service said in a statement Sunday.
"In particular, the President of Russia noted the need to organise close working contacts between the Russian Defence Ministry and the US Department of Defence, which would make it possible to combat ISIS and other terrorist organisations in more effective and better-planned fashion," read the statement.
The two leaders also stressed the “importance of rapidly implementing humanitarian access to besieged areas of Syria and initiating a nationwide cessation of hostilities,” the White House statement says, adding that they “agreed that the United States and Russia will remain in communication on the important work of the ISSG.”Both presidents gave a positive assessment of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) meeting in Munich this week, which laid out a plan to end hostilities in Syria and start a real political process there.
Barack Obama also said that Russia should play “a constructive role by ceasing its air campaign against moderate opposition forces in Syria.”
Russian officials have repeatedly stressed that the country’s aerial campaign is directed only against Islamic State and other terrorist groups, including Jabhat al-Nusra, as well as other affiliated organizations that have been recognized as terrorist by the UN Security Council, and does not target moderate opposition forces.
The two presidents also discussed the situation in Ukraine. Putin expressed the hope that Kiev authorities would start taking concrete steps aimed at fulfilling their commitments under the Minsk Accords, including establishing direct dialogue with the Donbass region and carrying out constitutional reform.
"The conversation between Mr Putin and Mr Obama was frank and constructive," the Kremlin said.
Speaking at a Democratic fund-raising dinner in Denver, Mrs. Clinton denounced Republican presidential candidates and the Senate majority leader’s pledge to not allow Mr. Obama to replace Mr. Scalia, who passed away at a West Texas ranch on Saturday. “For any of us who needed a reminder of just how important it is to take back the U.S. Senate and hold onto the White House, just look at the Supreme Court,” Mrs. Clinton said.
“I know that our thoughts and prayers are with the Scalia family tonight and I am also thinking and praying for the future of our country,” she said. “It is outrageous that Republicans in the Senate and on the campaign trail have already pledged to block any replacement that President Obama nominates”
“Barack Obama is the president of the United States until Jan. 20, 2017,” she continued. “That is a fact, my friends, whether Republicans like it or not.” She pointed to the longest successful confirmation process for a Supreme Court justice, the contentious, 100-day hearing in 1991 after President George H.W. Bush appointed Clarence Thomas. “There are 340 days until the next president takes office so that is plenty of time,” Mrs. Clinton said.
Mrs. Clinton rebuffed the argument by Republicans that a Supreme Court justice should not be appointed in an election year. “Okay, but the confirmation for Justice Kennedy took place in 1988,” she said. “That was an election year and he was confirmed 97 to nothing.”
Speaking as the Republican presidential debate unfolded on television, Mrs. Clinton did not mention her potential Republican rivals but she did single out Mr. McConnell, the Republican from Kentucky, calling his comments on Saturday evening “very disappointing and totally out of step with our history and constitutional principle.”
“Now, just a few minutes ago President Obama said he would nominate someone to the bench and that is exactly what he should be doing,” she said. “And leader McConnell should follow the constitutional process.”
By Bruce Pannier
The situation in northern Afghanistan, in areas along the border with Central Asia, has been deteriorating for more than two years now. Local officials, military officials, and residents of the northern provinces admit there are districts near or at the border of Central Asia that are currently under the control of the Taliban and their foreign militant friends.
Winter, as it does, had led to a lull in fighting in northern Afghanistan. But in recent weeks a renewal of hostilities has seen power lines coming from Central Asia cut and some amazing allegations from Afghan officials about militants in the north and their ability to sustain their efforts.
RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, assembled a "majlis," or panel, to discuss the recent developments in northern Afghanistan and how these developments are impacting neighbors to the north.
Azatlyk director Muhammad Tahir moderated the discussion. Participating from Kabul was Obaid Ali of the Afghan Analysts Network who recently visited Kunduz, one of the more restive provinces of northern Afghanistan. Joining the talk from Canada was Helene Thibault, professor at the University of Montreal's School of Public and International Affairs who has spent a great deal of time in Tajikistan doing research there and has authored many articles about the country. And I threw in a few comments also.
The panel first listened to an audio recording of Imomuddin Kureyshi, the head of the Imam Sahib district in Kunduz Province, who spoke with RFE/RL at the start of February.
"The people who make explosives and carry out suicide bombings are organized by Tajik and Uzbek militants. According to reports we have received from the intelligence [service], their numbers are about 200 in Imam-Sahib and Dashti Archi districts," Kureyshi said.
The Imam Sahib and Archi (sometimes called Dashti Archi) districts border Tajikistan.
Ali confirmed some of what Kureyshi said. Ali was in the Archi district and he said, "There they [foreign militants] have their training bases where they train Afghans, Taliban, and also other Central Asian fighters who came to Afghanistan." But Ali cautioned about the numbers of these foreign fighters. "I would like to mention that the number of Central Asian fighters or foreign fighters supporting the Taliban in Kunduz Province is not clear," he said.
Kureyshi had even more sensational news. "Some of them have even created a base...in Tajikistan on the other side of the river. When militants come under pressure on the Afghan side they escape to their base in Tajikistan," he claimed.
Tajik border guards reject this claim. Thibault has been to the border area and she also found it difficult to believe militants would be able to cross from Afghanistan into Tajikistan because, she said, there is not much support for militant groups on the Tajik side of the border. "The connections between the two peoples are actually quite limited," Thibault explained. "Within [Tajikistan's] population there isn't much support for Taliban and even not so much interest in Afghanistan."
Reporting on the situation along the Tajik-Afghan frontier on February 3, Russia's TASS news agency quoted a "representative" of Tajikistan's State Security Committee as saying there were some 5,000 militants along the Tajik border in northern Afghanistan. Russia media has been prone to quoting officials and experts who provide dire and sometimes incredible assessments and information about the Central Asian-Afghan border region. But interestingly, the "representative" TASS quoted also mentioned "several hundred militants in the Imam Sahib district," which jibes with what Kureyshi told RFE/RL.
Ali said, "What I noticed particularly in Kunduz Province, the places or the areas where the militants are more interested to establish their bases, actually it's very close to the Afghanistan-Tajikistan border."
But on the other side of the border Thibault said that at the moment, "Tajik authorities are more concerned with internal politics than they are with external politics, especially the Afghan conflict."
Moving further west, there has been fighting in Baghlan Province since late January. During that fighting the power line from Uzbekistan to Kabul, which provides more than 30 percent of Afghanistan's electricity, was cut, leaving the Afghan capital and other areas with limited or no electricity. And moving a bit more to the west, the power line from Turkmenistan to Faryab Province was also knocked out.*
These acts of sabotage in themselves would be bad enough but there is more to the story here. Members of the Baghlan provincial council said Minister of Borders and Tribal Affairs Golab Mangal made a deal with the Taliban that handed over the Dand-e Ghowri area, where the fighting has been going on, to Taliban control in exchange for promises to leave the provincial capital Puli Khumri alone.
There are accusations that similar deals between officials and the Taliban have also been made in Kunduz, Badakhshan, and Faryab provinces, again, all provinces that border Central Asia.
Tahir mentioned that Afghan Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum has not followed up on his pledge to drive the Taliban and their foreign allies from northern Afghanistan. Dostum led successful counteroffensives against militants last summer in northwestern Afghanistan, Dostum's native region. But there has been little evidence of a new push in recent weeks.
Ali concluded the discussion by saying, "this is the time the government needs to gain the ground." He followed that comment by saying, "If they [the government] lose it at this time it means that during the spring and summer the Taliban will obviously start their so-called spring offensive, so that will be very difficult for the government to fight against the Taliban in several fronts across the country."
The group discussed these issues and greater detail and looked at other issues of security along the Central Asia-Afghan border. You can listen to the full roundtable below:
They are young, vulnerable, and preyed upon by human traffickers. Each year dozens of children in Afghanistan are sold into slavery or even worse fates. Their families, usually very poor, hand them over to smugglers in exchange for the promise of cash. Some kids are even groomed as suicide bombers for the Taliban. RFE/RL spoke to two children who escaped from the clutches of the traffickers. (RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan)
by Shaharzad Akbar
“I myself transported at least 16 dead bodies within the first hour,” he said.
At least 33 people were killed and at least 100 others injured in the April bombing in northwestern Afghanistan, one of many that contributed to the worst year on record for civilian casualties in the country.
The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan reported Sunday that 2015 was the deadliest year for noncombatants since the agency first began tracking civilian casualties in 2009.
The report documented 3,545 civilian deaths, a 4% increase from 2014, and 7,457 injuries, a 9% rise.Once again, the fighting took the heaviest toll on what the U.N. agency called “the most vulnerable,” namely women and children, as casualty rates among both groups increased by double digits. The report documented 333 deaths and 913 injuries among women, a 37% overall increase on the year prior. Child casualties rose by 14% to 733 deaths and 2,096 injuries.Ali M. Latifi
When Yousef, 32, arrived at a central roundabout in Jalalabad one morning last spring, he was shocked by what he saw: A suicide bombing outside the local Kabul Bank branch had turned one of the city’s busiest areas into a site of unparalleled carnage.
As in the past, ground engagements between Afghan National Security Forces and the armed opposition were the leading cause of civilian casualties. Targeted killings and suicide bombings were the other leading causes. Anti-government elements were blamed for the majority of the casualties.
The April bombing in Jalalabad, which was claimed by a new group that says it has ties to Islamic State, represents the changing tactics of the armed opposition.
The past year has seen the opposition, led by the Taliban, stage more audacious attacks with increased targeting of the country’s major cities, many of which were once considered to be relatively safe.
The Taliban issued a statement Sunday denouncing the U.N. report, calling it "propaganda ... compiled at the behest of the occupying forces." It said the blame for civilian casualties "falls squarely on the shoulders of the Americans ... and the stooge Kabul administration."
Yousef, who only has one name, had moved to Jalalabad from smaller Sorkh Rod because of increasing violence there. But the violence followed him, erupting in one of the busiest places in the city.
He said he was on his way to run some errands that morning when he received a phone call alerting him to the bombing.
“As soon as I heard ‘there’s been a bombing outside Kabul Bank’ I rushed over,” he said. “Everything is near that roundabout—taxis to Kabul, the bank, shops. It’s one of those places where there is always crowds of people walking around.”
The U.N. mission documented a 16% increase in civilian casualties attributed to “anti-government elements” from suicide bombings and so-called “complex” attacks, which involve multiple attackers and weapons.
And on-ground reality
If the interior minister is indeed privy to landmark developments regarding madrassa reforms, they are so secret that even sections of the madrassa boards are still in the dark. Or, as the Wafaqul Madaris al Shi’a implied, perhaps Ch Nisar is taking merely holding of ‘several meetings’ as a sign of progress, even if there are still few points of convergence. And, for some reason, he did not care to shed much light on the ‘procedure’ that will be followed for registration. According to latest press reports, various ‘forms’ swung back and forth between the religious affairs and interior ministries and the provinces before the government suddenly announced ‘reaching an understanding’ on the issue.
The security czar’s take on Da’ish betrays a similar divorce from reality. The IB director must have had a reason for expressing such strong fears before the Senate Standing Committee on Interior, after all. Ch Nisar probably based his observation on the physical distance between Iraq/Syria and Pakistan. But in the proxy war landscape, it is patronage – funding, arming, guiding – of armed militias that counts. Surely Ch Nisar didn’t miss how a few armed and trained militants wreaked havoc in Paris recently. If Da’ish comes here, it will be through arms, funds, and direction, not by airdropping a brigade.
The proof of the pudding, at the end of the day, lies in the eating. Claims and counter-claims work only as long as the on-ground trends support them. And the string of attacks in the new year have caused considerable concern, especially since Charsadda; which fed fears that despite assurances there are still loopholes due to which even children are still at risk. Whenever the government has moved forcefully – be it in Waziristan or Karachi – there has been little need for marketing its success. A similar approach should be adopted on the matters of madrassa reform as well as containing outside forces looking for a foothold in Pakistan.