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After 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.
North Korea said it successfully tested a miniaturised hydrogen nuclear device on Wednesday, claiming a significant advance in its strike capability and setting off alarm bells in Japan and South Korea.
The test, the fourth time the isolated state has exploded a nuclear device, was ordered by young leader Kim Jong Un and successfully conducted at 10:00 a.m. local time, North Korea’s official KCNA news agency said.
“Let the world look up to the strong, self-reliant nuclear-armed state,” Kim wrote in what North Korean state TV displayed as a handwritten note.
The nuclear test drew condemnation abroad, with China, the North’s chief ally, expressing “resolute opposition” and saying it would lodge a protest with Pyongyang.
While a fourth nuclear test had been long expected, the claim that it was a hydrogen device, much more powerful than an atomic bomb, came as a surprise, as did the timing. It ensures that North Korea will be a key topic during the U.S. presidential campaign.
North Korea has long coveted diplomatic recognition from Washington but sees its nuclear deterrent as crucial to ensuring the survival of its third-generation dictatorship.
“With Iran being off the table, the North Koreans have placed themselves at the top of the foreign policy agenda as far as nation-states who present a threat to the U.S.”, said Michael Madden, an expert on the country’s secretive leadership.
South Korean intelligence officials and several analysts however questioned whether Wednesday’s explosion was indeed a full-fledged test of a hydrogen device.
The device had a yield of about 6 kilotons, according to the office of a South Korean lawmaker on the parliamentary intelligence committee – roughly the same size as the North’s last test, which was equivalent to 6-7 kilotons of TNT.
“Given the scale, it is hard to believe this is a real hydrogen bomb,” said Yang Uk, a senior research fellow at the Korea Defence and Security Forum.
“They could have tested some middle stage kind (of device) between an A-bomb and H-bomb, but unless they come up with any clear evidence, it is difficult to trust their claim.”
Joe Cirincione, a nuclear expert who is president of Ploughshares Fund, a global security organization, said North Korea may have mixed a hydrogen isotope in a normal atomic fission bomb.
“Because it is, in fact, hydrogen, they could claim it is a hydrogen bomb,” he said. “But it is not a true fusion bomb capable of the massive multi-megaton yields these bombs produce”.
The United States Geological Survey reported a 5.1 magnitude quake that South Korea said was 49 km (30 miles) from the Punggye-ri site where the North has conducted nuclear tests in the past.
North Korea’s last test of an atomic device, in 2013, also registered at 5.1 on the USGS scale.
The test nevertheless may mark an advance of North Korea’s nuclear technology. The claim of miniaturising, which would allow the device to be adapted as a weapon and placed on a missile, would also pose a new threat to the United States and its regional allies, Japan and South Korea.
The North’s previous miniaturisation claims have not been independently verified. Many experts also doubt whether the North possesses missile technology capable of reliably delivering a warhead to the continental United States.
The White House said it could not confirm North Korea’s claims of miniaturisation and a hydrogen bomb test, but added the United States would respond appropriately to provocations and defend its allies.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Japan would make a firm response to North Korea’s challenge against nuclear non-proliferation.
“North Korea’s nuclear test is a serious threat to our nation’s security and we absolutely cannot tolerate it,” Abe told reporters. “We strongly denounce it.”
South Korea said it would take all possible measures, including possible United Nations sanctions, to ensure Pyongyang paid the price after its fourth nuclear test.
“The government must now work closely with the international community to ensure that North Korea pays the commensurate price for the latest nuclear test,” President Park Geun-hye said in a statement. “We must respond decisively through measures such as strong international sanctions.”
North Korea has been under U.N. Security Council sanctions since it first tested an atomic device in 2006 and could face additional measures. The Security Council will meet later on Wednesday to discuss what steps it could take, diplomats said.
While the Kim regime boasts of its military might to project strength globally, it also plays up the need to defend itself from external threats as a way to maintain control domestically.
The North’s state news agency said it will not give up its nuclear program as long as the United States maintained what it called “its stance of aggression”.
The nuclear test came two days ahead of what is believed to be Kim’s birthday.
The North called the device the “H-bomb of justice” and said: “The U.S. is a gang of cruel robbers which has worked hard to bring even a nuclear disaster to the DPRK,” using the official acronym for North Korea.
However, the agency said Pyongyang will act as a responsible nuclear state and vowed not to use its nuclear weapons unless its sovereignty was infringed. It said it will not transfer its nuclear capabilities to other parties.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, attacking Saudi Arabia for the second straight day over its execution of a prominent Shi’ite cleric, said on Sunday politicians in the Sunni kingdom would face divine retribution for his death.
“The unjustly spilled blood of this oppressed martyr will no doubt soon show its effect and divine vengeance will befall Saudi politicians,” state TV reported Khamenei as saying. It said he described the execution as a “political error”.
Saudi Arabia executed Nimr al-Nimr and three other Shi’ites alongside dozens of al Qaeda members on Saturday, signalling it would not tolerate attacks by either Sunni jihadists or members of the Shi’ite minority seeking equality.
Khamenei added: “This oppressed cleric did not encourage people to join an armed movement, nor did he engage in secret plotting, and he only voiced public criticism … based on religious fervour.”
In an apparent swipe at Saudi Arabia’s Western allies, Khamenei criticised “the silence of the supposed backers of freedom, democracy and human rights” over the execution.
“Why are those who claim to support human rights quiet? Why do those who claim to back freedom and democracy support this (Saudi) government?” Khamenei was quoted as saying.
While Western human rights groups have condemned the executions, Western government responses have so far been muted.
The U.S. State Department expressed concern that Nimr’s execution could exacerbate sectarian tensions in the Middle East. In Hawaii, where President Barack Obama is on vacation with his family, White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said the administration has urged the Saudis to show restraint regarding respect for human rights.
Russia will keep cooperating with the United States and its partners to fight Islamic State in Syria, but that cooperation will be in jeopardy if there are any repeats of Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian jet, Russia’s Vladimir Putin said.
Speaking after talks in the Kremlin with French President Francois Hollande, Putin voiced lingering anger at Turkey’s actions, saying he viewed the downing of the jet as an act of betrayal by a country Moscow had thought was its friend.
But he said he would order Russia’s military to intensify cooperation with the French armed forces, including exchanges of information about targets and viewed that as part of creating a broader international coalition bringing together Russia and Western states.
“We are ready to cooperate with the coalition which is led by the United States. But of course incidents like the destruction of our aircraft and the deaths of our servicemen… are absolutely unacceptable,” Putin said at a news conference, standing alongside Hollande.
“And we proceed from the position that there will be no repeat of this, otherwise we’ll have no need of cooperation with anybody, any coalition, any country.”
He said he and the French leader had “agreed how we will cooperate in the near future, on a bilateral basis and with, as a whole, the coalition led by the United States.
“We are talking about a designation of the territories against which we can conduct strikes, and where it is better to refrain from strikes, about the exchange of information on various issues, and the coordination of our actions on, so to speak, the battlefield,” Putin said.
On bilateral cooperation with France, he said the aim was to “establish constructive work by our military specialists to avoid duplication and avoid strikes on those territories and groups which are themselves ready to fight terrorism.”
“We view this as the formation of a wide anti-terrorist coalition under the aegis of the United Nations,” Putin said.
The Russian leader said, under the cooperation already established with the U.S.-led coalition, Russia’s military had passed on details of the flight plan of the jet that was shot down this week.
“Why did we pass this information to the Americans? Either they were not controlling what their allies were doing, or they are leaking this information all over the place,” Putin said.
Cameron, who lost a vote on air strikes against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in 2013, needs to persuade several lawmakers in his own Conservative Party and some in the opposition Labour Party to back his cause if he is to win parliament’s backing for military action.
“Whether or not to use military force is one of the most significant decisions that any government takes. The need to do so most often arises because of a government’s first duty: the responsibility to protect its citizens. Decisions to use force are not to be taken lightly. It is right that Parliament, on behalf of the people, asks difficult questions and holds the Government to account. For its part, it is important that the Government should listen and learn. But it is also vital that the Government can act to keep this country safe.
Throughout Britain’s history, we have been called on time and again to make the hardest of decisions in defence of our citizens and our country. Today one of the greatest threats we face to our security is the threat from ISIL. We need a comprehensive response which seeks to deal with the threat that ISIL poses to us directly, not just through the measures we are taking at home, but by dealing with ISIL on the ground in the territory that it controls. It is in Raqqa, Syria, that ISIL has its headquarters, and it is from Raqqa that some of the main threats against this country are planned and orchestrated.
We must tackle ISIL in Syria, as we are doing in neighbouring Iraq, in order to deal with the threat that ISIL poses to the region and to our security here at home. We have to deny a safe haven for ISIL in Syria. The longer ISIL is allowed to grow in Syria, the greater the threat it will pose. It is wrong for the United Kingdom to sub-contract its security to other countries, and to expect the aircrews of other nations to carry the burdens and the risks of striking ISIL in Syria to stop terrorism here in Britain.
That is why I believe that we should now take the decision to extend British airstrikes against ISIL into Syria, as an integral part of our comprehensive strategy to degrade ISIL and reduce the threat it poses to us. At the same time, we must close down the ungoverned space in Syria that ISIL is exploiting, by working round the clock to bring about a political resolution to the war there. That means putting Britain’s full diplomatic weight, as a full member of an international coalition, behind the new political talks – the Vienna process.
It means working through these talks to secure a transition to an inclusive Government in Syria that responds to the needs of all the Syrian people and with which the international community could co-operate fully to help restore peace and stability to the whole country. It means continuing to support the moderate opposition in Syria, so that there is a credible alternative to ISIL and Assad.
It means using our aid budget to alleviate the immediate humanitarian suffering. It means insisting, with other countries, on the preparation of a proper stabilisation and reconstruction effort in Syria once the conflict has been brought to an end. And it means continuing, and stepping up, our effort here at home to counter radicalisation.
We must pursue all these tracks in parallel. As the threat from ISIL to our national security grows, we must take action – recognising that no course of action is without risk, but that inaction not dealing with ISIL at source, also carries grave risk. We have a comprehensive overall strategy in place to tackle the ISIL threat globally.
“If we believe that action can help protect us, then with our allies we should be part of that action not standing aside from it,” Cameron said. “And from this moral point comes a fundamental question: If we won’t action now, when our friend and ally France has been struck in this way, then our allies in the world can be forgiven for asking ‘If not now, when?’
“But Mr Speaker, we do face a fundamental threat to our security. We can’t wait for a political transition; we have to hit these terrorists in their heartlands right now. And we must not shirk our responsibility for security or hand it to others. Mr Speaker, throughout our history the United Kingdom has stood up to defend our values and our way of life. We can and we must do so again and I commend this statement to the house.”
Cameron confirmed, after a series of questions from opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn, that British boots would not hit Syrian soil.
“Let me give an assurance, we are not deploying British combat forces, we are not going to deploy British combat forces,” the prime minister said. “We think actually the presence of western boots on the ground in that way would be counter-productive. That is one of the things we have all, I think collectively across the house learnt from previous conflicts and we don’t want to make that mistake again.”
Lawmakers will have a few days to mull over Cameron’s case and a vote could take place early next week.
As part of a new diplomatic charm offensive following the successful negotiations with world powers over its nuclear programme, the predominant Shia state in the Middle East is making a concerted effort at building bridges with neighbouring Sunni states, traditionally regarded as rivals, in a significant shift in the country’s foreign policy.
A projected plan for Tehran to join an alliance alongside the West and Arab states against the Islamist group, with Russia also a member, was discussed during a visit by the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to Moscow this week.
The deputy foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian made an unexpected trip to Saudi Arabia recently to speak about Isis. Mr Zarif, meanwhile, has visited Lebanon, Kuwait and also Qatar. After the last meeting, the Qatari Foreign Minister, Khalid al-Attiyah, said there was a need to have a “serious dialogue with the Iranians” over mutual security concerns.
Ending the conflict in Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition is carrying out air strikes on Shia Houthi rebels, is, say the Iranians, their most urgent concern. But joining a broad-based campaign against Isis has become an increasingly public goal for Iran. Tehran is already playing a part in fighting Isis in Iraq in a de facto co-operation with Washington.
The Americans have been carrying out air strikes while Iranian-backed Shia militias are fighting on the ground.
The Pentagon continues to stress that it is only providing air support for Shia militias under the command of Baghdad, but this line has blurred, most notably since March during the battle to recapture Tikrit. Both the countries insist, however that there is no joint military planning.
Now, Iran wants a more formalised alliance and to extend its role to Syria. A senior Iranian diplomat told The Independent: “There is no border at the moment between Iraq and Syria and Isis has its headquarters in Syria, so it is artificial to keep a campaign just to Iraq. After all, that is why Britain wants to join the Americans in extending bombing from Iraq to Syria. Iran can defeat Isis.”
There would, however, be formidable obstacles to Iran’s taking a prominent role against Isis in Syria. The rebels, who have fought Tehran-backed Hezbollah fighters in the conflict, are bitterly opposed to an Iranian presence in the country.
And, despite reports that the Russians and the Iranians may be preparing to abandon Bashar al-Assad, Tehran is still standing by him. The opposition insists that his removal is fundamental to a peace deal.
The Israelis, who view Iran as an existential threat, and who were bitterly opposed the nuclear deal, would not be willing to accept Iranian forces across the border in Syria. They will lobby Washington to prevent this happening.
But a diplomatic momentum is building up over Syria with the US, Russia and the Saudis holding the first-ever joint talks on trying to end the conflict. Moscow is facing its own problem with Islamists pledging allegiance to Isis attempting to instigate jihad in the central Asian republics. Moscow has hosted meetings with both the rebels and the Assad regime.
At the same time, the Russians have called for a new coalition to fight Islamist extremists with the Iranians playing a key role. Last month, the Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that the signing of the nuclear deal “removed the barrier, largely artificial, on the way to a broad coalition to fight Isis”.
Restating his government’s willingness to join others against the Islamists, Mr Zarif said, after the meeting with the Russians last month: “Our common threat today is the growing menace of violent extremism and outright barbarism. The menace we’re facing – and I say we, because no one is spared – is embodied by the hooded men who are ravaging the cradle of civilisation. To deal with this new challenge, new approaches are badly needed.”
But it is the reaction of the West and of some Arab states which the Iranians say has been a source of encouragement. The US Secretary of State, John Kerry, has spoken about the need “to change the dynamic in Syria” to combat Isis. He added that he would discuss what role Iran can play against the group with Mr Lavrov.
Federica Mogherini, the European Union High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, believes that the nuclear deal with Tehran “opens the way for a new confidence in combating Isis”.
Egypt, which had quietly bowed out of earlier plans to lead an Arab League ground force into Yemen and finds itself fighting an increasingly violent Isis insurgency in the Sinai, is seeking a strategic security partnership with Iran and offering to mediate between Tehran and Riyadh, according to Mohammed Haykal, the prominent commentator and former adviser to President Gamal Abdel Nasser.
“The time has come to put aside past differences and face the common enemy,” said an Iranian diplomat.
“We managed to reach an agreement on the very complex nuclear issue. Why can’t we form an agreement to fight the terrorists of Isis?”
Iran and major powers gave themselves at least until Friday to negotiate an agreement on the Iranian nuclear program, but a source from one of the powers said on Tuesday they had to wrap up in the next 48 hours.
“We are continuing to negotiate for the next couple of days,” EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said outside the hotel where the marathon talks between Iran, Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States are taking place.
The spokeswoman for the U.S. delegation, Marie Harf, said the terms of an interim deal between Iran and the six would be extended through Friday to give negotiators a few more days to finish their work.
The negotiators had set Tuesday as a deadline when it became clear last week that a June 30 deadline would not be met. But despite a push in the past few days they made clear again that they still needed more time.
“We’re frankly more concerned about the quality of the deal than we are about the clock, though we also know that difficult decisions won’t get any easier with time,” Harf said.
There was disagreement about whether the talks were in effect open-ended. U.S. officials hoped to wrap them up in time for a 6 a.m. (0400 GMT) Friday deadline to secure an expedited congressional review, but it was unclear if that was possible.
“No deadline is sacrosanct for us,” senior Iranian negotiator Abbas Araqchi told reporters. “We are ready to stay in Vienna and continue talks as long as it is necessary.”
The source from one of the powers, however, said that there would be a time limit.
“We’ve come to the end,” said the source, on condition of anonymity. “We have just made one, final extension. It is hard to see how or why we would go beyond this. Either it happens in the next 48 hours, or not.”
Diplomats said a discussion on Monday night between Iran and the major powers became testy over the issue of U.N. sanctions, which Iran wants scrapped as part of a deal to curb its nuclear program.
“There was no slamming of doors but it was a very heated exchange of views,” a senior Western diplomat told reporters.
The comprehensive deal under discussion is aimed at curbing Tehran’s most sensitive nuclear work for a decade or more, in exchange for relief from economic sanctions that have slashed Iran’s oil exports and crippled its economy.
The United States and its allies fear Iran is using its civilian nuclear program as a cover to develop a nuclear weapons capability. Iran says its program is peaceful.
An agreement would be the most important milestone in decades towards easing hostility between the United States and Iran, enemies since Iranian revolutionaries captured 52 hostages in the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979.
A deal would be an important achievement for U.S. President Barack Obama and Iran’s pragmatist president Hassan Rouhani, but both leaders face scepticism from powerful hardliners at home.
It is the fourth time the parties have extended the interim deal struck in November 2013, which gave Iran limited sanctions relief in return for its restricting its nuclear program, including halting production of 20 percent enriched uranium.
The latest extension to Friday leaves open the possibility that an agreement will not arrive in time for a deadline set by the U.S. Congress in order to provide an expedited, 30-day review. That deadline is set for the end of the day on Thursday in Washington, or 6 a.m. (0400) on Friday in Vienna.
If a deal is sent to Congress between July 10 and Sept. 7, Congress will have at least 60 days to review it, taking into account lawmakers’ August vacation. U.S. officials fear that could provide more time for any deal to unravel.
Among the sticking points, officials said, are Iranian demands for a U.N. arms embargo and ballistic missiles sanctions to be lifted, the timing of U.S. and EU sanctions relief, and future Iranian nuclear research and development.
A senior U.S. official said U.N. restrictions would remain both on Iran’s trade in arms as well as its access to missile technology, but left open the possibility that these might be less onerous than they are at present.
U.N. restrictions on the development of Iran’s missile program date to 2006. They call for Iran to abandon its ballistic missile program and aim to prevent it from developing “nuclear weapon delivery systems,” which diplomats say covers any missile capable of delivering an atomic warhead.
While U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif planned to remain in the Austrian capital to continue negotiating, the majority of the other foreign ministers planned to leave, some for only 24 hours.
U.S. officials are loathe to ease the conventional arms embargo against Iran, fearing it would allow Tehran to provide greater military assistance to militants in Yemen, Syria or elsewhere in the Middle East.