Posts Tagged Britain

Afghan Army Being Restructured Ahead of Taliban Offensive

Six nations prepare for major Helmand operationAfter months of ferocious fighting, Afghan army units battling the Taliban in southern Helmand province are facing major restructuring and leadership changes, with several key commanders being replaced, a U.S. military official said.

Helmand has been a fierce battleground since last Autumn, with fighting taking place in 10 districts. At times, the insurgents have laid siege on army bases and threatened to overrun large chunks of territory. Local officials have called for help from central authorities and complained publicly over corruption that includes syphoning off salaries, food, fuel and equipment.

U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Wilson Shoffner, the head of public affairs for the U.S.-NATO mission, said  that the Afghan army corps in Helmand is now being “rebuilt” and that senior officers are being replaced.

The reasons for the changes in the Afghan army’s 215 Maiwand Corps “are a combination of incompetence, corruption and ineffectiveness,” Shoffner said. The corps’ commander has been replaced, along with “some brigade commanders and some key corps staff up to full colonel level,” he said.

Helmand is a strategic region for the Taliban, as it as it shares a border of more than 250 kilometers (155 miles) with Pakistan. It grows large quantities of opium, used to produce most of the world’s heroin. The harvest is worth up to $3 billion a year, and helps fund the insurgency.

The Afghan Defense Ministry confirmed the changes in Helmand. It said veteran army Gen. Moheen Faqiri was appointed to lead the corps and took over two months ago.

Gen. Dawlat Waziri, the ministry’s spokesman, said brigade commanders have also been rotated out and replaced.

“Soon, other army units will have new commanders there,” Waziri said.

In October, a meeting of the National Security Council discussed the worsening situation on the ground. In the presence of President Ashraf Ghani and U.S. Army Gen. John F. Campbell, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, the NSC heard that Afghan security forces were badly led, poorly equipped and in the previous three months had suffered 900 casualties, including 300 dead.

Minutes of the Oct. 29 meeting, show that Helmand was described by the former head of the intelligence agency, Rahmatullah Nabil, as “the biggest recruiting pool for the Taliban” and the insurgents’ “primary source of revenue” from poppy for heroin and marble smuggling.

Another concern is the Afghan police who are fighting on the front-lines across Helmand, often without the equipment and backup of the army, which means casualties are higher.

Last Wednesday, Gen. Abdul Rahman Sarjang, the Helmand provincial police chief, said the Afghan security forces were “exhausted” and in dire need of reinforcements. He also said that a lack of coordination between the army and police was hampering progress in the fight.

The Taliban have made serious stands in seven Helmand districts Sangin, Gereshk, Khanashin, Musa Qala, Nawzad, Washer and Marjah and at least three districts of Lashkar Gah are also under threat, Sarjang said.

The changes in Helmand reflect that Afghanistan’s civilian and military leaders are learning the limitations of the security forces as they take on the Taliban alone following the drawdown of the international combat mission at the end of 2014. The U.S. and NATO maintain 13,000 troops in Afghanistan, mostly in an advisory and training capacity.

In a most serious illustration of the dire battlefield situation in Helmand, the district of Sangin was besieged for weeks and in late December fears escalated that it would completely fall to the insurgents. The United States conducted airstrikes on Taliban positions, the British rushed special forces advisers to the area, and the Afghan military dropped food and ammunition to soldiers and police who were surrounded in their base.

Nabil told the NSC meeting there were about 12,000 Taliban fighters in Helmand, up to 60 percent of them from other parts of the country, evidence the insurgents had reinforced their numbers for the fight. Nabil also said Afghan forces’ morale was “extremely low” and discipline had broken down with “junior commanders openly defying their superiors.”

“Helmand is in a crisis,” Nabil told the meeting.

Shoffner, the U.S. general, said troops had been moved from other parts of the country to reinforce Helmand and that strategies have to change.

The notion that there is a “fighting season is outdated,” he said, as the Taliban offensives which in the past occurred in the warmer, summer months have escalated even in colder weather.

Afghan authorities do not release the casualty tolls for their combat forces. In 2014 that figure was estimated to have been about 5,000.

 

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Russia & UK Relations Hit New Low with Publication of Litvinenko Report

Litivenko - PutinBritain is embroiled in a furious diplomatic row with Russia after an inquiry concluded that President Vladimir Putin probably authorised the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko.

The Kremlin complained of a “gross provocation” after the official probe found the Russian leader was likely to have signed off the fatal poisoning of the dissident spy with radioactive polonium in London in 2006.

It prompted fresh acrimony over an episode that sent relations between the two countries into the deep freeze for more than five years.

The Government summoned the Russian ambassador and announced that the two men who allegedly carried out the killing – Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitri Kovtun – would have their assets frozen.

But the Litvinenko family’s barrister warned it would be “craven” if the Prime Minister avoided substantial reprisals due to diplomatic considerations over crises in Syria and Ukraine.

Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Mr Cameron insisted Britain was “toughening up” its response to Russia.

He added: “Do we at some level have to go on having some sort of relationship with them because we need a solution to the Syria crisis?

“Yes, we do but we do it with clear eyes and a very cold heart.”

The publication of the long-awaited report drew a blistering response from Russian ambassador Alexander Yakovenko.

Branding the inquiry a “whitewash” minutes after a meeting at the Foreign Office, he said: “This gross provocation of the British authorities cannot help hurting our bilateral relations.”

Mr Litvinenko died aged 43 three weeks after he drank tea laced with polonium 210 at the Millennium Hotel in Mayfair, central London.

The revelation that the father-of-three had been poisoned with a radioactive substance triggered a major security alert.

A £2.2 million inquiry into the former KGB agent’s death was finally held last year following a long battle by his widow Marina.

Sir Robert Owen’s report detailed the episode over more than 300 pages, finding that Lugovoi and Kovtun were probably acting under the direction of Moscow’s FSB intelligence service when they placed polonium 210 in a teapot at the hotel’s Pine Bar on November 1 2006.

But it was his final, 18-word conclusion that made headlines around the world.

Referring to then-FSB chief Nikolai Patrushev alongside Mr Putin, the former judge wrote: “The FSB operation to kill Mr Litvinenko was probably approved by Mr Patrushev and also by President Putin.”

Sir Robert pointed to Mr Litvinenko’s work for British intelligence, criticism of the FSB and Mr Putin, and his association with other dissidents such as Boris Berezovsky as likely motives for the assassination.

There was also “undoubtedly a personal dimension to the antagonism” between Mr Putin and Mr Litvinenko.

Tensions dated back to their only face-to-face meeting in 1998, when Mr Putin was head of the FSB and Mr Litvinenko wanted him to bring in reforms.

The dissident made “repeated highly personal attacks” on the Russian leader after seeking asylum in the UK in 2000, including an allegation of paedophilia in July 2006.

Sir Robert wrote: “I am satisfied that, in general terms, members of the Putin administration, including the president himself and the FSB, had motives for taking action against Litvinenko, including killing him, in late 2006.”

Lugovoi and Kovtun are both wanted by UK authorities but Russia has refused to extradite them. The pair are said to have tried to poison Mr Litvinenko at a meeting a fortnight before he ingested the fatal dose.

Lugovoi has been “lionised’ in Russia since the killing, receiving an award from Mr Putin.

Scotland Yard’s investigation remains open and European arrest warrants remain in place for the two men.

 

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Russia Expects Iran Nuclear Deal to be Implemented in January

Iran  Nuclear DealRussia’s envoy to the U.N. nuclear watchdog said on Monday he expected a historic nuclear deal between Iran and world powers to be implemented in January, leading to sanctions against Tehran being lifted.

At talks in Vienna, senior officials from those major powers discussed with Iran a text they have prepared that would close the International Atomic Energy Agency’s 12-year investigation of Tehran’s past activities while ensuring the IAEA could still check for signs of suspicious behaviour.

Under the deal, Iran must scale back its nuclear program, including its stockpile of low-enriched uranium – which it plans to do via a swap for non-enriched forms of uranium with Russia, to remove concerns it could be put to developing nuclear bombs.

That swap will be done before the end of the year, the Russian envoy to the IAEA, Vladimir Voronkov, told reporters.

Iran has said it will fulfill all its commitments under the July agreement only if the IAEA’s Board of Governors passes a resolution formally closing its investigation into Iran’s nuclear past when the board meets on Dec. 15.

The draft resolution of the IAEA Board of Governors drawn up by the major powers France, Britain, Germany, the United States, Russia and China, and sent to other states on Monday contained provisions that both sides could claim as victories.

“(The board) also notes that all the activities in the road-map for the clarification of past and present outstanding issues regarding Iran’s nuclear program were implemented in accordance with the agreed schedule and further notes that this closes the Board’s consideration of this item,” the text said.

The draft resolution, obtained by Reuters, also said the board would eventually no longer be seized of “Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and relevant provisions of Security Council resolutions in the Islamic Republic of Iran”, referring to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

That phrase, and a shorter version before the relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions were passed, has been the title of the IAEA’s regular reports on its investigation of Iran’s nuclear activities since 2003.

The draft resolution did, however, also provide for the board to tackle a new item covering “implementation and verification and monitoring” of the July deal in Iran, and for the IAEA to provide quarterly reports on Iran’s implementation of its commitments under the accord.

More generally, it requests the head of the agency to “report, in this regard … to the Board of Governors for appropriate action, and in parallel to the United Nations Security Council, at any time if the Director General has reasonable grounds to believe there is an issue of concern.”

Earlier on Monday, Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, Abbas Araqchi, who met with senior officials from major powers in Vienna, after the meetings said he was satisfied with the draft resolution and expected it to be adopted next week.

For sanctions on Iran to be lifted, the IAEA must first verify that the Islamic Republic has honoured all its commitments under the July deal, including dismantling large numbers of its centrifuges for uranium enrichment and filling parts of its Arak nuclear site with cement.

The IAEA report on Iran’s nuclear past, which was issued last week, strongly suggested Tehran had a secret nuclear weapons program before 2003, but, in a sign of the shift in relations since July, Western powers voiced little concern.

Araqchi said Iran rejected the findings of the report about its program before 2003, but added that, in Iran’s view, overall the document showed the peaceful nature of Iran’s atomic activities.

“We believe that based on this final assessment the Board of Governors should close the so-called PMD issue,” he told reporters, referring to the report into what is also known as the “possible military dimensions” of Iran’s nuclear past.

 

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Iranian Supreme Leader Bans Further Negotiations Between Iran and the United States

Ayatollah Ali KhameneiIran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Wednesday banned any further negotiations between Iran and the United States, putting the brakes on moderates hoping to end Iran’s isolation after reaching a nuclear deal with world powers in July.

Khamenei, the highest authority in the Islamic Republic, already said last month there would be no more talks with the United States after the nuclear deal, but has not previously declared an outright ban.

His statements directly contradict those of moderate Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who says his government is ready to hold talks with the United States on how to resolve the conflict in Syria, where the two countries back opposing sides.

“Negotiations with the United States open gates to their economic, cultural, political and security influence. Even during the nuclear negotiations they tried to harm our national interests.,” Khamenei was quoted as saying on his website.

“Our negotiators were vigilant but the Americans took advantage of a few chances,” he said.

Although he supported the last 18 months of negotiations, Khamenei has not publicly endorsed the nuclear agreement with the United States, Germany, France, Britain, China and Russia that settled a standoff of more than a decade.

The West feared Iran wanted to develop nuclear weapons, suspicions Tehran denies.

The agreement, which curbs Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for crippling sanctions being lifted, was welcomed by Iranians who are keen to see their living standards improve and better relations with the rest of the world.

It was also a great political victory for Rouhani and his faction in Iran ahead of some key elections next year and as such has deepened the divide in Iran’s complex power structure between moderates and hardliners.

In his address to Revolutionary Guards Navy commanders, Khamenei said talks with the United States brought only disadvantages to Iran.

“Through negotiations Americans seek to influence Iran … but there are naive people in Iran who don’t understand this,” Khamenei was quoted as saying to the IRGC commanders, who are also running much of Iran’s military involvement in Syria.

Hundreds of Iranian troops arrived in Syria last month, sources told Reuters, where they will join government forces and their Lebanese Hezbollah allies in a major ground offensive backed by Russian air strikes.

The West dispute the aims of Russia’s air campaign, which is causing friction between Moscow and NATO.

“We are in a critical situation now as the enemies are trying to change the mentality of our officials and our people on the revolution and our national interests,” Khamenei told the Guards.

Khamenei often invokes an unspecified “enemy” when talking about Western powers, particularly the United States and Israel, which he suspects of plotting to overthrow the Islamic Republic.

His comments might invigorate the hardline lawmakers seeking the impeachment of Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif over shaking hands with U.S. President Barack Obama on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly.

“On and off the record, it was an accident,” Zarif said in an interview with New Yorker on Tuesday.

“It has already cost me at home. But everything I do costs me at home, so this is not an aberration.”

 

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Merkel Calls for Security Council Reform To Reflect 21st Century Realities

Angela MerkelIt is now time that the United Nations Security Council is reformed to reflect the real distribution of power across the world in the 21st century, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Saturday.

“We need a new method of work to solve problems,” Merkel said. “That makes reform of the Security Council necessary, reform which reflects the real power in the world better than the situation today.”

The appeal was in a summary of Merkel’s opening remarks at a meeting with her counterparts from Brazil, India and Japan provided to reporters by the German delegation.

“We have to proceed very wisely,” she added, according to the summary. “We have to find allies to reach our goal of reform.”

Merkel is in New York for a summit meeting of world leaders on global development at the U.N. General Assembly.

The Security Council, the most powerful U.N. body, has 15 members, five of them permanent. It has the ability to issue legally binding resolutions imposing sanctions or authorizing military action to enforce its decisions.

The 10 temporary members are elected for two-year terms by the General Assembly.

Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States, key allies from World War Two, are permanent veto-wielding council members.

Germany, Japan, India and Brazil say the world is very different from what it was in 1945 and the Security Council should reflect that. Germany and Japan, which are global financial powers and top contributors to the United Nations, argue that they deserve permanent council seats.

“The current atmosphere is that not only we four but many others don’t agree with the structure and the working method of the Security Council,” Merkel told the other leaders. “We want to take others with us to reach a modern working structure of the Security Council which suits the 21st century.”

The goal of expanding the council to include additional permanent and temporary members has long been an elusive one. Many U.N. member states routinely call for Security Council reform and have been working for decades, so far unsuccessfully, to find an acceptable formula for expanding the council.

The five permanent council members can block any such moves. Britain and France say they support council reform. The United States has also cautiously backed it. U.N. diplomats say China, and to a lesser extent Russia, are the principal opponents of the idea.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s popularity has dropped sharply over her handling of the refugee crisis, two polls showed on Saturday, indicating a shift in the mood in Europe’s most populous country towards the record influx of new arrivals.

Berlin expects at least 800,000 economic migrants and war refugees this year alone. While some Germans warmly welcome people fleeing conflict in the Middle East and Africa, others are concerned about how easily they can be integrated.

In a survey published in Der Spiegel magazine and conducted by pollster TNS Forschung, Merkel’s support dropped five points to 63 percent compared to the previous ranking three months ago.

For the first time in Merkel’s third term in office, a leading member of her junior coalition partner, the Social Democrats, topped the list of popular politicians. Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier got 67 percent approval.

Merkel’s Bavarian ally Horst Seehofer, who has said she was wrong to let Syrian refugees stuck in Hungary come to Germany, saw his approval rating jump 6 points to 44 percent.

Another poll for ZDF television showed Merkel’s popularity fell to 1.9 from 2.4 two weeks earlier, with support being measured on a scale between -5 and 5.

While roughly three out of four Germans still say Merkel is doing a good job all in all, her refugee and asylum policies are being viewed more critically, the ZDF Politbarometer showed.

Half of those polled were content with Merkel’s refugee policy while nearly as many, 43 percent, disagreed with the chancellor’s approach, the survey said.

 

 

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Obama Secures Veto Proof Number in Senate To Secure Iran Deal

Iran dealThe Iran nuclear deal strongly backed by President Barack Obama and just as ardently opposed by the GOP is now on track to get through Congress.

In the Senate, Democratic supporters now claim a decisive 34 votes in favor, after Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland called the pact “the best option available to block Iran from having a nuclear bomb.”

That will allow backers to uphold Obama’s veto, if necessary, of a resolution of disapproval Republicans are trying to pass this month. GOP lawmakers who control the House and Senate say Iran got too many concessions in the agreement, which aims to curb the country’s nuclear program in exchange for hundreds of billions of dollars in relief from international sanctions.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., grudgingly acknowledged that his side would not be able to block the deal, which he said leaves Iran “with a threshold nuclear capability.”

Israel also has railed against the deal, arguing that its conditions would keep Iran perilously close to developing nuclear weapons while enriching a government that has funded anti-U.S. and anti-Israel militants throughout the Middle East.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest called the growing support a validation of Obama’s effort to “make sure that every member of the Senate understands exactly what’s included in the agreement.” The deal sets Iran back so that it is at least a year away from being able to produce enough nuclear material for a weapon, before the restrictions ease after a decade.

For all the geopolitical ramifications, the debate in the U.S. has often seemed more about domestic partisan politics over a resolution that, on its own, wouldn’t be able to reverse a multi-country agreement already blessed by the United Nations. A vote of disapproval, however, could signal Congress’ readiness to introduce new sanctions at the risk of causing Tehran and other governments — to abandon the accord and blame the U.S. for the failure.

Republicans, defending their congressional majorities and aiming for the White House in next year’s elections, have denounced the deal in apocalyptic terms. The bulk of Democrats have rushed to the president’s defense.

Next week, Donald Trump and fellow presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz will rally outside the Capitol against the agreement, as lawmakers return from a five-week recess to begin debating it.

In the House, the disapproval resolution is certain to pass by a wide margin when it comes to a vote next week. But in a letter to fellow Democrats on Wednesday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said she has the votes to back up an Obama veto.

Supporters of the deal are seeking a bigger victory in the Senate. If they can assemble 41 votes in favor, they’d be able to block the disapproval resolution from passing at all, sparing Obama the embarrassment of having to veto it. They need seven of the remaining 10 undeclared Democrats to back the agreement, though several in this group could still come out in opposition.

Either way, Obama has succeeded in selling a package that prompted immediate and intense opposition from Republicans in the days after it was concluded on July 14 by Iran, the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China.

Millions were spent lobbying against the pact and polls registered significant public distrust. But none of the skepticism translated into enough Democratic opposition to threaten the deal, and only two Senate Democrats, Chuck Schumer of New York and Robert Menendez of New Jersey, have announced their opposition so far.

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United Nations Security Council Backs Iran Nuclear Deal

Iran nuclear dealThe U.N. Security Council on Monday backed Iran’s nuclear agreement with world powers but the Islamic Republic’s Revolutionary Guards attacked the resolution, underlining powerful opposition to the deal.

U.S. President Barack Obama, who also faces domestic political opposition to the agreement, hailed the United Nations endorsement, saying it showed last week’s accord commanded broad international support as the best way of ensuring Iran never gets nuclear weapons.

The European Union also approved the deal, which curbs Iran’s nuclear program in return for easing economic sanctions, while Germany rapidly moved to revive its once close trading relationship with Tehran. EU foreign ministers, inspired by the diplomacy that led to the nuclear pact, agreed to try and involve more countries in restarting peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

At the United Nations, the Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution that was negotiated as part of the agreement reached in Vienna between Iran and the six powers.

In return for lifting the U.S., EU and U.N. sanctions that have crippled its economy, Iran must accept long-term limits on the nuclear program that the West suspected was aimed at creating an atomic bomb, but which Tehran says is peaceful.

The White House said several cabinet members would give two classified briefings to lawmakers in Congress on Wednesday and it welcomed a letter signed by 60 national security experts approving the deal.

While the Democratic Party leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, wrote to colleagues backing the nuclear agreement, congressional Republicans, who control both chambers of Congress, railed against the U.N. vote. Several called it an “affront to the American people” because it took place before the end of the congressional review period.

Congress has 60 days to decide whether to approve or reject the deal.

The agreement also faces opposition in some Middle East states, including Israel and Saudi Arabia. Israel warned U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter on his visit to Israel on Monday that it feared the pact would translate into more money for Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed Lebanese militia group, and others hostile to Israel.

Even before the Council passed the resolution in New York, top Iran Revolutionary Guards commander Mohammed Ali Jafari denounced it for interfering with Iran’s military operations and crossing “red lines” set by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

“We will never accept it,” he was quoted as saying by the semi-official Tasnim News Agency.

Iranian hardliners are worried that U.N. inspectors may gain some access to sensitive military sites under the resolution, which becomes international law.

The country’s senior nuclear negotiator, Seyed Abbas Araghchi, dismissed critics’ concerns and called the resolution an “unprecedented achievement in Iran’s history”. The deal must be approved by Iran’s National Security Council and later by Khamenei. Parliament’s role is not clear.

The EU’s approval of the deal with the United States, China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany marked a first step toward lifting Europe’s economic sanctions against Tehran. The bloc hopes this will send a signal that the U.S. Congress will follow.

In a message mainly aimed at skeptical voices in Congress and strong resistance from Israel, EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels stressed that there was no better option available.

“It is a balanced deal that means Iran won’t get an atomic bomb,” said French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.

Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, appeared to try to address some of the concerns shared by congressional conservatives and some in the Middle East. The deal “doesn’t change our profound concern about human rights violations committed by the Iranian government or about instability Iran fuels … from its support for terrorist proxies to its repeated threats against Israel, its other destabilizing activities in the region”, she said.

Iran’s U.N. Ambassador, Gholamali Khoshroo, rejected the U.S. accusations as baseless. “The country that invaded two countries in our region and created favorable grounds for the growth of terrorism and extremism is not well placed to raise such accusations against my country,” he told the Council.

Passage of the U.N. resolution triggers a complex set of coordinated steps agreed by Iran during nearly two years of talks with the powers.

It says that no sanctions relief will be implemented until the International Atomic Energy Agency submits a report to the Council verifying that Iran has taken certain nuclear-related measures outlined in the agreement.

Under the deal, the major powers which signed the accord don’t need to take any further action for 90 days. Then they are required to begin preparations so they are able to lift sanctions as soon as the IAEA verification report is submitted.

Some countries are already keen to do business with the oil exporter. Germany and Iran moved tentatively on Monday toward reviving trade, anticipating the lifting of the sanctions.

Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel, making the first top level German government visit to Tehran in 13 years, indicated that a ministerial-level meeting of a long dormant German-Iran economic commission would take place early next year in Tehran.

For decades, Germany was Iran’s biggest trading partner in Europe. German exports there hit 4.4 billion euros in 2005 but then slumped to 1.8 billion by 2013 as the West tightened the sanctions.

The trip is a delicate one for Gabriel, who is also Vice Chancellor, partly because of Germany’s close ties to Israel, Iran’s sworn enemy.

Gabriel said better economic ties depended on Iran improving relations with Israel. “For us Germans, Israel’s security is of great importance,” he told a news conference.

At the same news conference, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif did not touch on the issue of Israel directly, but said: “Of course we have differing political views. But we can talk about these differences of opinion.”

 

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