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Obama quietly broadens US mission in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama has quietly approved guidelines in recent weeks to allow the Pentagon to target Taliban fighters in Afghanistan, broadening previous plans that had limited the military to counterterrorism missions against al-Qaida after this year, U.S. officials said late Friday.

The president’s decisions also allow the military to conduct air support for Afghan operations when needed. Obama issued the guidelines in recent weeks, as the American combat mission in Afghanistan draws to a close, thousands of troops return home, and the military prepares for narrower counterterrorism and training mission for the next two years.

Obama’s moves expand on what had been previously planned for next year. One U.S. official said the military could only go after the Taliban if it posed a threat to American forces or provided direct support to al-Qaida, while the latter could be targeted more indiscriminately.

“To the extent that Taliban members directly threaten the United States and coalition forces in Afghanistan or provide direct support to al-Qaida, however, we will take appropriate measures to keep Americans safe,” the official said.

The Taliban’s presence in Afghanistan far exceeds that of al-Qaida, adding significance to Obama’s authorization. The president’s decision came in response to requests from military commanders who wanted troops to be allowed to continue to battle the Taliban, the U.S. officials said.

The New York Times first reported the new guidelines. Officials confirmed details to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss Obama’s decisions by name.

The decision to expand the military’s authority does not impact the overall number of U.S. troops that will remain in Afghanistan. Earlier this year. Obama ordered the American force presence to be cut to 9,800 by the end of this year, a figure expected to be cut in half by the end of 2015.

The president wants all U.S. troops to be out of Afghanistan a year later, as his presidency draws to a close.

Some of the Obama administration’s planning for the post-2014 mission was slowed by a political stalemate in Afghanistan earlier this year. It took months for the winner of the country’s presidential election to be certified, delaying the signing of a bilateral security agreement that was necessary in order to keep U.S. forces in the country after December.

In Kabul, officials with the Afghan Defense Ministry declined to comment Saturday, while officials with the presidency could not be reached.

However, Afghan military analyst Jawed Kohistani said the move likely would be welcomed as President Ashraf Ghani’s new administration upon taking office immediately signed a deal with the U.S. to allow a residual force of 12,000 foreign troops in the country.

“We have heard from many military officers who are involved in direct fighting with the Taliban and other insurgents that still there is a need for more cooperation, there is need for an ongoing U.S. combat mission and there is need for U.S. air support for the Afghan security forces to help them in their fight against the insurgents,” Kohistani said.

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Slim chances for a full Iran nuclear deal by the deadline?

IRAN DEADLINE  monitor nuclear

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JUDY WOODRUFF: U.S. and Iranian negotiators intensified their efforts today to overcome divisions in talks on Tehran’s nuclear program. The deadline for a deal is Monday.

Hari Sreenivasan has the story.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif unexpectedly met for a second time this evening. Despite reservations and objections from Israel, Gulf allies and many in Washington, Kerry is hoping to reach a deal with the country to defuse a 12-year standoff over its nuclear program.

To get up to speed on the latest, I’m now joined by David Sanger of The New York Times, who is covering the talks in Vienna.

So, David, this morning, when I read the news, it seemed that both parties were sort of leaving the negotiating table. Now you’re telling us they met twice. What happened?

DAVID SANGER, The New York Times: Well, it’s been a day of high drama. It’s not been clear that it’s been a day of much progress.

Much of this right now may be sort of last-72-hours brinksmanship. The word this morning was that, after one more meeting, the Iranian negotiator was going to fly back to Tehran, presumably, Hari, to get instructions about last-minute concessions.

And then we heard that Secretary of State Kerry was going to leave to go to Paris. He wasn’t going to stay around here and wait for his Iranian counterpart to return. By the end of the evening, they were both staying. We can’t tell if that is because of progress or because there was really no reason to go back and propose anything to Iran’s supreme leader.

HARI SREENIVASAN: OK. Let’s talk a little bit about what they’re talking about. The deadline is, as you said, just less than 72 hours away. How big is the gap in what both sides want?

DAVID SANGER: Well, the big — the gap in what they want is pretty huge.

The question is, how big is the gap in what they would settle for?  And we’re not entirely certain where they are on each of the main issues. But the things on which they still seem to be divided still are the following.

First, the Iranians want in any final deal to have all of the sanctions, the sanctions and Western-based sanctions, and the United Nations sanctions, basically lifted almost immediately, but certainly in the very near future by a date certain.

President Obama wants to make sure that he simply suspends these sanctions, probably through the remaining part of his presidency, while the Iranians begin to comply with the requirements of the agreement, so that he could reimpose sanctions with just the signature of a pen if, in fact, the Iranians don’t comply fully.

And that’s a major issue. And of course, with Congress, that’s a big issue because don’t — they want to vote, and many in Congress want to impose some new sanctions.

Another big issue is how much uranium enrichment capacity Iran will be left with, and there are all sorts of proposals floating around. But two of the biggest are that Iran send a lot of its existing fuel to Russia, where it will be fabricated into some kind of fuel that they could use in one of their nuclear power plants. That would take it out of the potential for being turned into a weapon.

The other is that Iran dismantle a large number of its centrifuges, those floor-to-ceiling machines that spin at supersonic speeds and actually enrich the uranium. And that’s all part of a complex mathematical calculation about how do you get enough assurance that it would take Iran at least a year, maybe more, to race for a bomb?

HARI SREENIVASAN: That all said, how likely is a deal by Monday?

DAVID SANGER: I think the chances of a final deal on Monday are pretty slim. I would put them at well under 50 percent.

However, it’s in neither side’s interest at this point to have this entire negotiation fall apart. If that happened, Iran would have no chance of getting the sanctions lifted and would probably start producing nuclear fuel again.

So I think that the most likely outcome is some agreement in principle or some announcement that they have made some progress on some major areas, but then another extension. And that raises a lot of concerns as well, because it means that people who oppose a deal in Congress and people who oppose a deal in Tehran, which includes the Revolutionary Guard Corps, might have time to move in and sort of kill off the chances of any kind of final agreement.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Right.

All right, David Sanger of The New York Times joining us from Vienna, thanks so much.

DAVID SANGER: Thank you, Hari.

 

 

 

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Syrian cleric who led funeral prayers for Peter Kassig speaks out against Islamic State, Assad

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JUDY WOODRUFF: Earlier today, friends and family of the Islamic State’s latest Western beheading victim, aid worker Peter Kassig, said goodbye to the 26-year-old.

Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner reports.

MARGARET WARNER: Kassig, who converted to Islam after his capture in 2013 and took the name Abdul-Rahman, was memorialized this afternoon at an Indiana mosque.

Among the speakers, prominent Syrian Sunni cleric Sheik Muhammad al-Yaqoubi. Al-Yaqoubi was among the first Syrian clerics to call on President Bashar al-Assad to step down in 2011 after government forces cracked down on peaceful protesters. He was forced into exile later that year.

But he’s also a vocal critic of the Islamic State group. Two months ago, he released an open letter to its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, telling him: “You have misinterpreted Islam into a religion of harshness, brutality, torture and murder,” which he called a great wrong and an offense to Islam.

I spoke with Sheik al-Yaqoubi yesterday.

Sheik al-Yaqoubi, thank you for joining us.

SHEIK MUHAMMAD AL-YAQOUBI: Thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: Why did you agree to speak at Peter Kassig’s funeral when the family asked you to?

SHEIK MUHAMMAD AL-YAQOUBI: Well, Peter Kassig, Abdul-Rahman, sacrificed his life for the sake of the Syrian people.

He went on a humanitarian mission as an aid worker to help save humanity, to show sympathy to the Syrian people, solidarity of the American people with the Syrian people. So it’s our duty as Syrians to stand by his family, and to stand by his community, and to stand by the American people who gave this example of bravery in this difficult time, when ISIS is slaughtering everyone.

MARGARET WARNER: Why do you think the Islamic State group is staging these violent beheadings of Westerners, even aid workers like Peter Kassig?

SHEIK MUHAMMAD AL-YAQOUBI: They carry hatred to the world, to Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

You see he converted to Islam. It didn’t help him. He was an aid worker. It didn’t help him. What kind of heart kills someone who came to help the people of Syria? What kind of a man even in Islam, between rockets, kills his Muslim brother?

MARGARET WARNER: So, why are they so successful, apparently, in attracting recruits from not only all over the Islamic world, but even Western Europe and here in the United States?

SHEIK MUHAMMAD AL-YAQOUBI: It’s the Assad regime and the atrocities of the Assad regime, which still continue.

It’s a killing machine; 200,000 people have been killed over 3.5 years now. So, as long as the atrocities continue, you will find groups like ISIS succeeding in recruiting more people.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, of course, you were an early opponent of the Assad regime. There were peaceful demonstrations then.

Why is the anti-Assad movement really now apparently being led by the most extreme elements in the Muslim community?

SHEIK MUHAMMAD AL-YAQOUBI: Because the voice of the people was lost within of all of the fighting.

The Assad regime is very cunning. It opted for violence and extreme use of power from the very early days of the uprising. And it released from prison the most extremist Islamists, knowing that they will opt for carrying guns and fighting and revenge. So that is how the shape of the Syrian uprising changed from the beginning.

MARGARET WARNER: You said earlier this week that al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed ruler of this Islamic State caliphate, was going to hell. What do you mean?

SHEIK MUHAMMAD AL-YAQOUBI: He’s against Islam. He’s non-Muslim, according to the Muslim standards, because he’s allowing people to kill Muslims, referring to the Book of Allah, wrongly using religious texts.

This is anti-Islamic. He’s going against God. He’s going against the message of Islam, Mohammed, peace be upon him. If he repents and come in a court and defend himself, he won’t have any one single verse of the Koran to defend his opinion in killing innocent people.

MARGARET WARNER: What will this hell look like?

SHEIK MUHAMMAD AL-YAQOUBI: For him?

MARGARET WARNER: Yes.

SHEIK MUHAMMAD AL-YAQOUBI: Hell will — for him, God knows what type of punishment he’s going to receive for this savagery which has never been witnessed in modern history.

You know, in Islam, we have never seen any group as extremist as this group. This is the most dangerous and serious group that existed ever in the history of Islam. It constitutes a threat, not only to the Syrians or the region, but to the whole world. Muslims and Islam carried mercy to the world. And this is totally against the very nature of the message of Islam.

MARGARET WARNER: What would you say to young recruits and would-be recruits? Are they headed for the same fate?

SHEIK MUHAMMAD AL-YAQOUBI: Well, first of all, they shouldn’t be lured by any propaganda that the Islamic State is waging through the Internet especially.

So joining al-Baghdadi is an act of sin, is an enormous sin, is an act of crime. It’s a crime against humanity. You are distorting the image of the very religion and the very God you are worshiping.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you got more than 100 Islamic scholars of some prominence to sign this letter, but do you think there has been enough significant opposition and outcry from the moderate Muslim community, the nonviolent Muslim community in general against the Islamic State group?

SHEIK MUHAMMAD AL-YAQOUBI: You’re right, Margaret, to put this question. There has not been enough, indeed. And we regret this.

We think that mainstream media in the Arab world has not been highlighting this important issue by bringing religious scholars on prime time to address our Muslim fellows across the Arab world and the Islamic world.

MARGARET WARNER: But, I mean, these are your communities. Can not the communities themselves generate this kind of counterforce in all these other countries where some of these recruits are coming from?

SHEIK MUHAMMAD AL-YAQOUBI: It is very clear that it is incumbent upon all Muslims to inform if they know of anyone traveling, because they’re doing service to God by informing of anyone who is joining this gang.

This is a group of gangsters who are distorting history, distorting the history of humanity even, not only the history of Islam.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, three years ago, when you first came out against Assad, you talked about wanting to build a tolerant, democratic Syria, where all faiths, Sunni and Shia, other faiths could live side by side. Is that dream over?

SHEIK MUHAMMAD AL-YAQOUBI: No, it is not over.

The moment Assad is toppled, you will see that 70 percent of those people who are fighting now will lay down their weapons and they will go back to their homes to reunite with their families and rebuild the country.

Syrians are — they presented a beautiful example over centuries of harmonious coexistence between all the groups. Damascus is the oldest city that has been inhabited in the world for 10,000 years continually. And they are capable of doing this again.

MARGARET WARNER: And you think, after all this violence, all this savagery, it can be put back together?

SHEIK MUHAMMAD AL-YAQOUBI: Syria can be put back together. Its long history will not be erased by someone like al-Baghdadi or a group like ISIS.

Syrians have a lot of hopes. And they seek the help of the friends of Syria and the world to get rid of both the Assad and ISIS.

MARGARET WARNER: Sheik al-Yaqoubi, thank you so much.

SHEIK MUHAMMAD AL-YAQOUBI: Thank you.

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Faced with ‘mega-crisis,’ UN warns of refugee suffering and security threats

REFUGEE  CRISIS  tent city monitor

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JUDY WOODRUFF: We take a closer look now at the world’s surging refugee problem, which the United Nations point person on the issue calls a mega-crisis.

He spoke to chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner earlier today.

MARGARET WARNER: For nearly a decade, Antonio Guterres has overseen the U.N. High Commission for Refugees’ far-flung operations around the world.  Recently, his agency issued a staggering new report.  There are now more than 51 million people worldwide who are refugees or displaced in their own lands, more than any time since World War II.

The conflict in Syria, and now in Iraq, makes up more a quarter of that toll, as millions seek refuge in neighboring Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Northern Iraq.  Guterres is in Washington this week to spread the alarm.

I spoke with him today at the UNHCR’s Washington office.

High Commissioner Guterres, thank you for having us.

You have been at this job for nine years.  Is this worst you have ever seen in terms of displacement? 

ANTONIO GUTERRES, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees: Undoubtedly.  And I think things will get worse, before eventually they will start to get better.

We are seeing a multiplication of new crises, a mega-crisis in Syria, old crises that go on and on and on, and all this reflects the lack of capacity of the international community to prevent conflicts and to timely solve them.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, many respected research institutions and even President Obama said recently, if you look back over the decades, there are actually fewer armed conflicts in the world than there used to be and fewer people killed in armed conflicts.  If that’s the case, why are we seeing more displaced people?

ANTONIO GUTERRES: We are witnessing different forms of fighting.

In the past, we had wars between two states or between a state and a rebel group.  Now we have conflicts with a multiplicity of actors, national forces, international forces, ethnic militias, religious militias, rebel groups, bandits.  Banditism has been benefiting from this chaos.

Sometimes, is a bandit in the morning and member of a militia in the afternoon, which means that the impact on civilian populations is much larger than the impact of classical conflicts of the past.

MARGARET WARNER: And they’re also less controllable by political leaders then.

ANTONIO GUTERRES: Well, I think political leaders have this impression that they can trigger a conflict, because, as the international community today, we live in a world without a global governance system.  But we also live in a world where power relations became unclear.

So political leaders feel that there is an environment of impunity.  And there is also an environment of unpredictability.  And they think that they can trigger a war and go on with that war.  Let’s see what’s happening in South Sudan.  And then the humanitarians will come and clean the mess.

The truth is that we no longer have the capacity to clean up the mess.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, when you say the humanitarian structure can’t deal with it, are you talking about both your own agency and NGO’s and all these neighboring countries that all are involved in this?

ANTONIO GUTERRES: Look at Lebanon.  One-third of the Lebanese population now is foreigner, Syrian refugees, Palestinian refugees.  Can you imagine the impact on the economy, on the society, schools, hospitals, infrastructure, water, electricity?

Lebanese poor people competing for jobs with Syrians, and they’re ready to work for whatever price.  So salaries are going down, prices and rents going up, a huge impact.  The same in Jordan, the same in the northern part of Iraq.  There is no way the international community is supporting these countries as they need.

MARGARET WARNER: Let’s talk about Syria and Iraq.  Winter is approaching — in fact, winter is here in some parts in — in the higher elevations.  Your agency has said you’re $58 million shortfall I think just to get through this — the end of this year.

What are you going to do?  I mean, how are you going to choose who to help?  You can’t help everyone.

ANTONIO GUTERRES: Well, we are moving money as much as we can from all kinds of savings everywhere to be able to increase our capacity locally.

We are asking other partners to enhance their efforts.  But, indeed, it’s an enormously challenging situation.  People think that, in the Middle East, it’s warm, but it’s not.  In winter, some of these areas are very cold.  They have negative temperatures, snow, floods.  And people can suffer tremendously, because many of them have very precarious shelter.

MARGARET WARNER: But will you have to essentially ration care?

ANTONIO GUTERRES: We are trying to avoid it at all costs.

Last year, it was possible outside Syria, for the refugees outside Syria to avoid any casualty due to cold temperatures or bad weather.  Inside Syria, unfortunately, the capacity to deliver is much more limited, even for security reasons.

I hope we will be able to do the same this year, but now we have an additional problem in Iraq.  And, as you know, most of the refugees are in Kurdistan.  And in Kurdistan, you have also very, very low temperatures and a very harsh winter.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, what is the impact of all of this, both on the refugees themselves and the wider world, if these funding needs aren’t addressed, for starters?

ANTONIO GUTERRES: Well, first of all, that means an enormous amount of suffering for the people.

But there is another dimension.  I believe what we do is important for humanitarian reasons, but we are dealing with a world in which these crises are not only humanitarian crises.  They are also threats to regional peace and stability.  You have fighters from all over the world in the region.  One day, they will go back.  And we can imagine the risks that correspond to that.

So, to support these populations and to support the local communities to avoid that people feel abandoned, frustrated, angry is absolutely essential also to help stabilize the area and to help avoid what could be the creation of an environment that would facilitate the life of those radical groups.  And so that is why it’s so important to bring development factors and to think out of the box on how to fund humanitarian emergencies in the world.

MARGARET WARNER: And so if the answer is to think outside of the box, you have been traveling around to all these Western capitals, trying to raise this alarm, what more can the West do, other than write bigger checks?

You say that nub of this is, you have got these conflicts that start.  And once they start, they just rage on and on and on.  Is there a role for the international community in resolving some of these?

ANTONIO GUTERRES: Yes.  But, unfortunately, you see the Security Council paralyzed.  And as the power relations are not clear, people feel sentiments of impunity and they go on doing what they are doing.

We need an international community able to come together to forget about the differences, contradictions, the different perspectives, and to understand that in the wars of today, nobody is winning, everybody’s losing.

And I hope that the divisions that we are witnessing, sometimes the memory of the Cold War divisions, the Sunni-Shia divides, I think these are much less important than the threats that today are there and that are serious threats for everybody everywhere.

MARGARET WARNER: High Commissioner Antonio Guterres, thank you so much.

ANTONIO GUTERRES: Thank you very much.

 

 

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