Putin is the ‘greatest gift’ to NATO since end of Cold War — ex-CIA head Petraeus

Russia successfully ‘breathed new life’ into NATO by giving it a reason to boost military expansion into Eastern Europe and strengthen the US foothold on the continent, ex-CIA boss, retired four-star general David Petraeus said.

Russia singlehandedly gave the American-led military bloc “a new reason for living,” the former general told the audience at an international conference in New Delhi, India on Wednesday.

Petraeus stressed that Moscow prompted the alliance to deploy more troops and aircraft into Eastern Europe and the Baltic States as well as set up new command HQs in the region.

Putin is the ‘greatest gift’ to NATO since end of Cold War — ex-CIA head Petraeus

It was done under the pretext of fighting ‘Russian aggression’ as relations between NATO and Moscow steadily deteriorated during the presidency of Vladimir Putin. In that sense, Putin is “the greatest gift” NATO has received since the conclusion of the Cold War, the American general said.

He also ‘credited’ the Russian leader for providing the US with the rationale to return an armored brigade to Europe “for the first time in a number of years.” It is currently stationed in Poland.

The former CIA head told the audience that despite the occasional tensions between the US President Donald Trump and NATO, Washington remains the “backbone” of the alliance as its chief armed force and financial backer.

Also on rt.com ‘Obvious threat’: Russian officials warn Poland not to proceed with permanent US military base...

In recent years, the US and its allies have been boosting military might in Europe, citing the need to deter Moscow following the Ukrainian crisis and the accession of Crimea into Russia. This strategy led to the increase of the number of combat-ready troops and large-scale military drills near the nation’s borders.

The Kremlin, in turn, had been blasting NATO’s continued expansion eastward. Russian politicians said that the growing militarization of the region undermines European security and may lead to destabilization in the region.

Four-star General David Petraeus was considered to be one of the most influential military policy-makers in the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations. Before being appointed the head of the CIA, he led the US Central Command.

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Trump Considering "Steel Barrier" Instead Of Solid Mexico Border Wall

Donald Trump has already altered his long-standing pledge that Mexico would pay for the wall, claiming a new trade deal with Mexico, Canada will cover the cost.

After pledging for years to construct a solid wall along the U.S.-Mexico border to combat illegal immigration, President Donald Trump appears to be backing away from that promise as he and his allies play down what the administration wants built - alternately referring to the planned wall as a fence, a "steel slat barrier" or a metaphor for border security.

The shift marks a tacit acknowledgment of retreat by the White House on one of its signature issues as it faces the reality of divided government in the new year and a partial government shutdown that is in its second week.

Trump has already altered his long-standing pledge that Mexico would pay for the wall, claiming earlier this month that a new trade deal with Mexico and Canada would cover the cost "just by the money we save," a notion dismissed by experts and for which the White House has offered no explanation.

Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., a leader of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, defended the president on Monday, saying Trump "has embraced a number of options for border barriers," including a concrete wall in certain areas and steel slats or fencing in others.

"All have been considered as part of the solution," he said.

Trump has been sensitive to any criticism from his supporters, including in conservative media, that he is softening his stance on the wall, and some are saying they are concerned about any move away from building a solid barrier on the border.

"I absolutely want to build a wall in the sense that the president has described it all throughout the campaign and in the sense that I've described it in all of my 16 years in Congress," said Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, an immigration hard-liner. "Wherever there's a wall built, it's been effective."

The debate over what constitutes a wall comes as Trump and Republican leadership are at odds with congressional Democrats on the issue of border security, with the impasse leading to a partial government shutdown that is unlikely to be resolved until Thursday at the earliest, when the new Congress convenes and Democrats take control of the House.

A Trump-backed spending bill passed by House Republicans on Dec. 20 included more than $5 billion in border-security funding that could be spent on a wall, but that measure has not gained traction in the Senate, where Democrats are resisting the president's demand.

On Monday, the president disputed an assertion by his outgoing chief of staff, John Kelly, that the White House has jettisoned plans for a concrete wall, claiming that the idea was "NEVER ABANDONED."

In morning tweets, Trump sought to blame the media for the discrepancy and said he still envisions an "all concrete" wall in some areas but that a "see through" barrier at the U.S.-Mexican border would be more appropriate in other areas based on what he's been told by "experts at Border Patrol.

"Makes sense to me!" he added.

In an interview published Sunday in the Los Angeles Times, Kelly was quoted saying that the current White House plan for a barrier is "not a wall."

"The president still says 'wall' - oftentimes, frankly, he'll say 'barrier' or 'fencing.' Now he's tended toward steel slats," Kelly said. "But we left a solid concrete wall early on in the administration when we asked people what they needed and where they needed it."

During his presidential campaign, Trump made his plans to build a "beautiful" solid border wall a central part of his platform.

"Did you ever see precast plank, for parking garages?" Trump said in Derry, New Hampshire, in August 2015, at the first town hall of his campaign. "So, you take precast plank. It comes 30 feet long, 40 feet long, 50 feet long . . . And you do a beautiful, nice precast plank with beautiful everything. Just perfect."

A year later, at a campaign rally in Kissimmee, Florida, Trump again referenced "concrete plank."

"Precast, right? Precast. Boom. Bing. Done. Keep going," Trump said.

A feature of his campaign rallies - both as a candidate and as president - has been crowds chanting "build the wall."

After being elected president, Trump's rhetoric on the wall changed to include the possibility of see-through portions. Trump explained that border agents had advised him that they need to be able to see who is on the other side of the wall; he also claimed that transparent sections would help ensure that Americans near the border would not be hit by "large sacks of drugs" thrown over by criminals.

Earlier this month, Trump further shifted his stance, arguing in a tweet that "we are not building a Concrete Wall, we are building artistically designed steel slats."

What has changed most in recent days is that an increasing number of Trump allies have openly suggested that the White House may not be wedded to the idea of a concrete wall at all as it seeks to negotiate the end of the shutdown.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., one of Trump's close confidants, on Sunday said the president is seeking "a physical barrier along the border in places that make sense," asserting that "the wall has become a metaphor for border security."

"In the past, every Democrat has voted for these physical barriers," Graham told reporters outside the White House after a lunch meeting with Trump. "It can't be just about 'because Trump wants it we no longer agree with it.'"

And during a television interview Sunday, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway chided Trump critics for focusing on the word "wall."

"It is a silly, semantic argument because people who just want to say 'wall, wall, wall' want it to be a four-letter word," she said on "Fox News Sunday." "There may be a wall at some places, there may be steel slats, there may be technological enhancements."

Trump has previously chafed at the suggestion that he has changed his views on the border wall. In January 2017, Kelly drew Trump's ire by telling congressional Democrats the president had "evolved" on the wall and was not "fully informed" when he made it a campaign issue.

Trump then responded on Twitter to news reports about Kelly's remarks, writing: "The Wall is the Wall, it has never changed or evolved from the first day I conceived of it."

Some immigration hard-liners argue that the construction materials matter less than whether there are physical barriers along the border, and that Trump is unlikely to face a backlash among his base.

"There may be some risk. I don't think it's that significant," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that supports tighter controls on immigration. "I don't think people were cheering at these rallies or going to the polls because of the specific construction material for these border barriers."

King warned of trying to conflate other border security proposals with Trump's promise of a wall.

He said that even fencing was inadequate for security needs along the border and that surveillance and other technology, as well as additional border agents, would be insufficient because ultimately, they're operated by humans.

"Walls don't have prosecutorial discretion," King said.

He argued that some of Trump's recent comments had undermined his push to secure wall funding. In his Oval Office meeting a few weeks ago with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., Trump said he would take the blame for any shutdown. Then, in a Christmas Day appearance in which he blamed Democrats for the shutdown, Trump described the border barrier as "a wall or fence, whatever they'd like to call it."

"Both of those verbal statements have now been used to undermine the commitment for the wall," King said.

The White House press office did not return a request for comment to explain the administration's messaging.

In an interview with Fox News Monday, Trump said funding for a wall, without specifying what that means, needed to be part of any deal to end the shutdown.

"A lot of people are looking to get their paycheck, so I'm ready to go whenever they want," he said of Democrats. "No, we are not giving up. We have to have border security and the wall is a big part of border security. The biggest part."

Democrats have seized on the inconsistent messaging from the Trump administration.

"People around the president are trying to put a brave face on it and reverse-engineer a strategy from tweets, but that's not going to solve this shutdown," Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, said Monday.

Pelosi has mocked Trump's shifting demands, recently claiming that the president's wall had transformed into "a beaded curtain."

The lack of a unified message from the White House also raises another problem, said Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va.: "Who do you negotiate with, who can agree to a deal and make it stick?"

He added: "There's no reliable individual or sets of individuals in this White House, including the president. His word is good for about five minutes. And so, it is a problem."

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Pelosi remains defiant on wall funding as Trump seeks fresh talks

As a partial US government shutdown hit the two-week mark on Friday, Donald Trump once again invited congressional leaders to meet him at the White House, amid an impasse over his demands for taxpayers’ money for a border wall, and Democrats taking control of the House of Representatives.

The president has invited leaders from both parties back to the White House just two days after a meeting on border security in the Situation Room did not resolve matters, and a day after Nancy Pelosi became speaker of the House and Democrats passed legislation to reopen the government.

The meeting is scheduled for 11.30am in Washington.

About 800,000 federal workers have been affected by the 22 December closure of about a quarter of the federal government as Trump withheld his support for new funding until he secures $5bn to build his long-promised but unachieved wall along the US-Mexico border.

Such a wall, Trump has argued, is needed to stem the flow of immigrants and drugs over the south-western border. When he ran for president in 2016, he vowed Mexico would pay for the wall, which it has refused to do.

On Thursday, Trump tried to keep the pressure on Democrats, even as they gained significant new power with their takeover of the House of Representatives at the start of a new Congress.

“Build the Wall,” the president demanded on Twitter.

But in remarks at a surprise White House press briefing, Trump appeared to give himself negotiating space when he said: “You can call it a barrier. You can call it whatever you want. But essentially, we need protection in our country.”

In a meeting at the White House in December, Trump said he would be “proud” to take responsibility for causing the government shutdown, though has since tried to blame it on Democrats.

Pelosi was adamant, however.

“We’re not doing a wall,” she said late on Thursday. “It has nothing to do with politics. It has to do with a wall is an immorality between countries. It’s an old way of thinking. It isn’t cost effective.”

Asked if she would give Trump $1 for a wall to reopen the government, Pelosi said: “One dollar? Yeah, one dollar. The fact is a wall is an immorality. It’s not who we are as a nation.”

Late on Thursday, the House passed two Democratic bills to immediately reopen government agencies for varying lengths of time, despite a White House veto threat.

The Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, a Republican, will not support the legislation and has pledged not to pass anything the president will not sign.

But McConnell now faces increasing pressure from fellow Republicans.

“We should pass a continuing resolution to get the government back open. The Senate has done it last Congress, we should do it again today,” the Republican senator Cory Gardner told the Hill on Thursday. His colleague Susan Collins also called for the Senate to pass the funding bills.

Vice-President Mike Pence later suggested on Fox News that the White House could work with Democrats on so-called Dreamer immigrants who were brought to the United States unlawfully as children – an idea Trump had rejected on Wednesday. “It’s being talked about,” Pence said.

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Donald Trump Warns US Government Shutdown Could Last A 'Long Time'

Washington: US President Donald Trump met top Democratic lawmakers on Wednesday, but they failed to hammer out an agreement that would end a partial government shutdown over his demand for billions of dollars to build a border wall with Mexico.

One day before Democrats take over the House of Representatives, Trump showed no signs of backing away from his insistence that Congress cough up $5.6 billion for his "beautiful" southern wall.

Trump met behind closed doors at the White House with Nancy Pelosi, the Democrat who will take over as speaker of the House on Thursday, and Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader, but there were no indications any progress had been made in resolving the impasse.

"We asked the president to support the bills that we support that will open up government," Schumer said. "I asked him directly, I said 'Mr. President give me one good reason why you should continue your shutdown.'

"He could not give a good answer," Schumer said.

Republican Kevin McCarthy, who will be minority leader in the next House, said Democratic and Republican leaders of Congress would return to the White House on Friday for more talks.

"This doesn't need to go on very much longer," McCarthy said.

But Trump said he was prepared to hold out "as long as it takes" to secure the money he is seeking for the border wall.

"This is national security we're talking about," he said at a cabinet meeting ahead of the meeting with Pelosi, Schumer and top Republicans. "It's too important a subject to walk away from.

"I think the people of this country think I am right," Trump said, adding that it "could be a long time" before the government reopens.

Trump's meeting with Pelosi and Schumer was his first since an acrimonious Oval Office meeting with the pair on December 11.

Democrats say the border wall, one of Trump's key campaign promises, is a distraction from more complicated immigration problems and a tool for Trump to whip up support among his conservative base.

The standoff resulted in hundreds of thousands of federal employees being furloughed over the Christmas and New Year holidays -- and for the foreseeable future until a deal is reached.

Romney hits out at Trump

Amid the stalemate over the wall, Trump shelved his annual Christmas vacation in Florida, choosing to remain in Washington and fire off a stream of angry -- and often misleading -- tweets.

"Much of the Wall has already been renovated or built," he asserted, along with the dubious claim that Mexico would pay for the wall through the new trade deal between the two countries.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders accused Democrats of refusing to compromise.

"President Trump made a serious, good faith offer to Democrats to open the government, address the crisis at our border and protect all Americans," Sanders said.

Pelosi is proposing a plan that would fund most government agencies through September 30 with the exception of the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees border security and would only receive funding through February 8.

Sanders described that approach as a "non-starter because it does not fund our homeland security or keep American families safe from human trafficking, drugs and crime."

Republicans lost 40 seats and their majority in the House in the November midterm elections but they retained control of the Senate by a slim margin.

Sixty votes, however, are needed to advance legislation in the Senate, requiring Democratic support.

Democratic Senator Chris Coons of Delaware welcomed the face-to-face meeting between Trump and Democratic leaders and told CNN he hoped it would lead to a end to what he called a "senseless" shutdown.

Republican Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, has said he will only schedule a vote on a deal that has the support of both the House and Trump.

Adding to the uncertainty in Washington, an incoming senator, former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, lashed out at Trump on Tuesday in an opinion piece in The Washington Post.

"Trump's words and actions have caused dismay around the world," wrote Romney, who was elected to the Senate in November from his home state of Utah.

"I do not intend to comment on every tweet or fault," Romney said. "But I will speak out against significant statements or actions that are divisive, racist, sexist, anti-immigrant, dishonest or destructive to democratic institutions."

Trump expressed surprise over the comments said he hoped the Republican senator would prove to be a "team player."

In an interview with CNN, Romney said he would vote to provide funding for a border wall.

  • Published in World

Trump Averaged 15 False Claims A Day In 2018: Report

President Donald Trump's year of lies, false statements and misleading claims started with a series of morning tweets.

Over a couple of hours Jan. 2, Trump made false claims about three of his favorite targets - Iran, The New York Times and Hillary Clinton. He also took credit for the "best and safest year on record" for commercial aviation, even though there had been no commercial plane crashes in the United States since 2009 and, in any case, the president has little to do with ensuring the safety of commercial aviation.

The fusillade of tweets was the start of a year of unprecedented deception during which Trump became increasingly unmoored from the truth. When 2018 began, the president had made 1,989 false and misleading claims, according to The Washington Post's Fact Checker's database, which tracks every suspect statement uttered by the president. By the end of the year, Trump had accumulated more than 7,600 untruths during his presidency - averaging more than 15 erroneous claims a day during 2018, almost triple the rate from the year before.

Even as Trump's fact-free statements proliferate, there is growing evidence that his approach is failing.

Fewer than 3 in 10 Americans believe many of his most-common false statements, according to a Fact Checker poll from earlier this month. Only among a pool of strong Trump approvers - about 1 in 6 adults in the survey - did large majorities accept several, though not all, of his falsehoods as true.

Similarly, a November Quinnipiac poll found 58 percent of voters saying Trump wasn't honest, compared to just 36 percent who said he was honest. The same poll found 50 percent saying he is "less honest" than most previous presidents, tying his own record for the highest share of registered voters saying so in Quinnipiac polling.

"When before have we seen a president so indifferent to the distinction between truth and falsehood, or so eager to blur that distinction?" presidential historian Michael R. Beschloss said of Trump in 2018.

Beschloss noted that the constitution set very few guidelines in this regard because the expectation was that the first president would be George Washington and he would set the tone for the office. "What is it that school children are taught about George Washington? That he never told a lie," he said. "That is a bedrock expectation of a president by Americans."

Trump began 2018 on a similar pace as last year. Through May, he generally averaged about 200 to 250 false claims a month. But his rate suddenly exploded in June, when he topped 500 falsehoods, as he appeared to shift to campaign mode. He made almost 500 more in both July and August, almost 600 in September, more than 1,200 in October and almost 900 in November. In December, Trump drifted back to the mid-200s.

Trump's mid-summer acceleration came as the White House stopped having regular press briefings and the primary voice in the administration was Trump, who met repeatedly with reporters, held events, staged rallies and tweeted constantly.

Trump is among the more loquacious of recent presidents, according to Martha Kumar, professor emerita at Towson University, who keeps track of every presidential interaction with the media, dating to Ronald Reagan. Through Dec. 20, Trump held 323 short question-and-answer sessions with reporters, second only to Bill Clinton through the first 23 months, and granted 196 interviews, second to Barack Obama.

More than a quarter of Trump's claims came during campaign rallies. On Nov. 5, the day before the midterm elections, for instance, Trump held three rallies, yielding a total of 139 false or misleading claims. A review of every statement made by Trump at two of his earlier 2018 rallies found that he exaggerated or made up at least 70 percent of his assertions.

Almost as many false claims came during remarks at press events, and about 17 percent were the result of the president's itchy Twitter finger.

The president misled Americans about issues big and small. He told a series of lies about payments his now-convicted lawyer says Trump authorized to silence women alleging affairs with him. He routinely exaggerates his accomplishments, such as claiming he passed the biggest tax cut ever, presided over the best economy in history, scored massive deals for jobs with Saudi Arabia and all but solved the North Korean nuclear crisis.

He attacks his perceived enemies with abandon, falsely accusing Clinton of colluding with the Russians, former FBI Director James Comey of leaking classified information and Democrats of seeking to let undocumented immigrants swamp the U.S. borders.

The president often makes statements that are disconnected from his policies. He said his administration did not have a family separation policy on the border, when it did. Then he said the policy was required because of existing laws, when it was not.

The president also simply invents faux facts. He repeatedly said U.S. Steel is building six to eight new steel plants, but that's not true. He said that as president, Barack Obama gave citizenship to 2,500 Iranians during the nuclear-deal negotiations, but that's false. Over and over, Trump claimed that the Uzbek-born man who in 2017 was accused of killing eight people with a pickup truck in New York brought two dozen relatives to the United States through "chain migration." The real number is zero.

In one of his more preposterous statements of 2018, Trump labeled the Palm Beach Post as "fake news" for blaming him for traffic jams across the nation - when an article about the impact of low gas prices on driving habits never mentioned his name.

Sometimes, Trump simply attempts to create his own reality.

When leaders attending the United Nations General Assembly burst into laughter when Trump uttered a favorite false claim - that his administration had accomplished more in less than two years than "almost any administration in the history of our country" - the president was visibly startled and remarked he "didn't expect that reaction." But then he later falsely insisted to reporters the boast "was meant to get some laughter."

In an October interview with the Wall Street Journal, Trump emphatically denied he had imposed many tariffs. "I mean, other than some tariffs on steel - which is actually small, what do we have? ... Where do we have tariffs? We don't have tariffs anywhere," he insisted. The newspaper responded by printing a list of $305 billion worth of tariffs on many types of U.S. imports.

Trump exaggerates when the facts are on his side.

He routinely touts a job growth number that dates from his election, not when he took office, thus inflating it by 600,000 jobs. And although there's no question Trump can draw supporters to his rallies by the thousands, he often claims pumped-up numbers that have no basis in fact. At a Tampa rally, he declared that "thousands of people" who could not get in are watching outside on a "tremendous movie screen." Neither a crowd of that size nor the movie screen existed.


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Trump's Visit Fuels Iraqi Rejection

Baghdad, Dec 28 (Prensa Latina) President Donald Trump's quick visit to a US military base in Iraq fueled rejection by local legislators to his and the presence here of US troops.

Arrogant and a violation of national sovereignty were some of the comments made by Iraqi MPs, following Trump's meeting with US soldiers at Ain al-Asad air base.

The abruptness of the visit left Iraqi legislators annoyed and with unfavorable opinions about the invasion and occupation of Iraq by an Anglo-American alliance in 2003.

'Trump needs to know his limits. The US occupation in Iraq is over', said Sabah al-Saidi, chief of one of the two blocs in Parliament.

The tycoon, he added, slipped into Iraq, as if he were visiting a U.S. territory.

Several Iraqi lawmakers condemned Trump's disobedience. Trump did not meet with any official and only spoke on the phone with Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi.

In the meantime, the unexpected presence of the U.S. president could unleash unforeseeable consequences, including a debate in parliament to expel the Pentagon from the country.

However, Trump said he had no plans to withdraw the 5,200 soldiers from Iraq and assured that the Ain al-Asad base could facilitate air strikes against positions in neighboring Syria.

That approach contrasts with the current feelings of Iraqi politics, which is willing to be sovereign on the outside and not lend support to regional conflicts.

The US troops remain in Iraq as part of an international coalition to fight the Islamic State terrorist group.

The Pentagon withdrew its troops in 2011 after the invasion and occupation of 2003 but returned in 2014 at the request of the Iraqi government to fight radical groups.

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US Authorities Blame Parents For Migrant Kids’ Deaths

The U.S. authorities, rather than improving their immigration policies, have sought to shift the blame for the deaths of migrant children to the parents. 

From Wednesday all the detained migrant children under the custody of the United States Border Patrol, will go through more rigorous medical check-ups. This measure came after two Guatemalan children died while under U.S. custody a few days apart.

RELATED:More Broken Promises? US Border Authority to Change Policies After Death of 2 Kids

Secretary of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen said in a statement, “This tragedy, the death of a child in government custody is deeply concerning and heartbreaking. In the last 24 hours, I have a directed a series of additional actions to care for those who enter our custody.”

She said that the Department of Homeland Security has been investigating the cases.

She also has “personally engaged with the Centers for Disease Control to request that their experts investigate the uptick in sick children crossing our borders.”

Felipe Gomez-Alonzo, an eight-year-old Guatemalan migrant boy died early on Christmas Day after being detained by the United States border agents. His death followed the death in early December of seven-year-old Jakelin Caal, also from Guatemala. She died of dehydration after being detained along with her father by U.S. border agents in a remote part of New Mexico.

Rather than recognizing the way U.S. border authorities treat immigrants who have the right under international law to seek asylum, Nielson, shifted the burden onto the immigrant parents who “bring their children on a dangerous and illegal journey” adding that these parents do not face consequences for their actions.

The unempatheic comments come as Felipe's mother, back in Guatemala faces the consequence of never seeing her son again. “I’m sad and in despair over the death of my son,” the boy’s 32-year-old mother, Catarina Alonzo, told Reuters by phone from her home in the tiny village of Yalambojoch, speaking through a translator because of her limited Spanish.

The Secretary goes further to say: "Our system has been pushed to a breaking point by those who seek open borders. Smugglers, traffickers, and their own parents put these minors at risk by embarking on the dangerous and arduous journey north … Given the remote locations of their illegal crossing and the lack of resources, it is even more difficult for our personnel to be first responders,” said the secretary.

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US Withdrawal Of Troops In Afghanistan Raises Big Questions

The 17-year-old US war in Afghanistan took a new turn last week when President Donald Trump ordered the withdrawal of 7,000 American troops from the country.

Trump has long questioned the utility of US involvement in Afghanistan, seeing it as a wasteful expense - and a conflict without a clear victory strategy. The White House decision was followed by the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who had pushed for continued US engagement in Afghanistan.

Here are three questions about how the troop drawdown may affect the situation in Afghanistan.

What happens now to the peace talks with the Afghan Taliban?

The drawdown risks undermining the nascent peace process between the United States and the Afghan Taliban, ultimately making it more difficult for the US government to leave the country on its terms. In 2018, US diplomats worked to persuade the Afghan Taliban to come to the negotiating table. For much of the year, the Afghan Taliban remained unwilling to talk.

Scholars of civil war suggest that rebels prefer fighting over negotiations when external state support and illicit economies make them confident of their military prospects - criteria which the Taliban meet. This past week, the Taliban came around to some preliminary talks but refused to speak to the Afghan government.

The Taliban's long-held strategy has been to erode the US government's resolve to stay in Afghanistan. Even with 14,000 American troops fighting alongside Afghan security forces, the Taliban inflicted sustained losses on Afghan forces, retaining control of large parts of the country and challenging key urban centers.

With only half as many US troops remaining in the country, the Afghan Taliban may press home their advantage by accelerating the pace of attacks. The reduction in force level could now give the Taliban confidence that their strategy is working and that a full withdrawal of US forces is a reasonable expectation.

The drawdown, in fact, might have been a potential US bargaining chip on the negotiating table with the Afghan Taliban. But the White House decision was out of sync with the negotiations. It appears to have undercut the US diplomat leading the negotiations with the Taliban, Zalmay Khalilzad, who was trying to signal that "American commitment was firm."

Will Afghanistan see domestic political realignment and renewed danger of a civil war?

The US drawdown risks triggering serious domestic political realignments in Afghanistan, destabilizing the political structure underlying the US-backed regime. Senior Afghan journalist Sami Yousafzai observes that Afghan political elites are comparing the modern period to the chaos following the 1989 Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. Back then, the government of Prime Minister Mohammad Najibullah, after losing its great power patron, rapidly lost ground as warlords and armed groups wrestled for control.

Those memories, combined with the state of the Taliban insurgency, may prompt domestic players to prepare for the worst-case scenario - a multiparty civil war. Some leaders may mobilize their ethnic bases of support while stepping up the process of arming themselves. Others may reach out to their foreign patrons and seek direct material support. These political realignments may increase the already high rate of defections from rank-and-file Afghan security forces.

Such realignments pose a threat to the faltering coalition of President Ashraf Ghani, who announced he will seek re-election in the April presidential election. The worsening security situation combined with elite squabbling may make an election more improbable.

And will terrorist groups, including al-Qaida, stand to gain?

The drawdown can help Afghanistan-based terrorist groups intent on attacking the United States, specifically al-Qaida. In 2015, battered by the US drone war in Pakistan, al-Qaida revived some operations in Afghanistan, using its South Asia franchise, al-Qaida in the Indian subcontinent.

The US government claims al-Qaida's strength in Afghanistan remains checked. My field research, however, suggests that al-Qaida still has a serious skeleton capability in the region, specifically in eastern provinces like Paktika, which it is actively trying to rebuild.

Reduction of US forces is likely to ease existing military pressures on al-Qaida - and give it more space to rebuild for local and external operations. Al-Qaida may be able to allocate more resources in support of the Afghan Taliban's military campaign. And it may be able to better marshal the capability needed for a major international terrorism operation.

The pressure on al-Qaida might be sustained if Afghan intelligence agencies can substitute for the US intelligence infrastructure that will fold with the drawdown. A surge in offshore US capabilities, like aerial surveillance and communication interception, and armed striking platforms such as drones could enable the US government to manage al-Qaida's threat.

But Afghan intelligence suffers from defections and rampant corruption, and has struggled to provide high-quality support to the US government. In addition, any meaningful increase in aerial and communication surveillance across Afghanistan will be costly. These expenditures may not be a priority in a White House with a stated goal of reducing US military deployment expenses.

That doesn't mean al-Qaida will be able to mount a major attack in the United States. Even with a robust external operations infrastructure, al-Qaida will struggle to execute an attack inside the United States because of the layers of US counterterrorism vigilance. However, the availability of a relatively conducive safe haven in Afghanistan can improve al-Qaida's ability to train recruits and plot the group's next moves.

The situation in Afghanistan was grim as is. The unexpected drawdown adds to the complexity of a difficult situation. And it adds to the woes of Afghan civilians who have been caught up in the web of internal conflict for four decades.

  • Published in World
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