Official: Russian weapon 27 times faster than speed of sound
By VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV
Thursday, December 27
MOSCOW (AP) — Russia’s new strategic weapon has rendered any missile defenses useless at a small fraction of their cost, officials said Thursday.
The Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle flies 27 times faster than the speed of sound, making it impossible to intercept, Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov told Russian state television.
The new weapon “essentially makes missile defenses useless,” he said.
Borisov spoke a day after Russian President Vladimir Putin oversaw what he described as the conclusive successful test of the Avangard and hailed it as a reliable guarantee of Russia’s security for decades to come.
In Wednesday’s test, the weapon was launched from the Dombarovskiy missile base in the southern Ural Mountains. The Kremlin said it successfully hit a practice target on the Kura shooting range on Kamchatka, 6,000 kilometers (3,700 miles) away.
The Defense Ministry released footage from the test launch, in which a ballistic missile could be seen blasting from a silo in a cloud of smoke, but it hasn’t released any images of the vehicle itself.
Putin said the Avangard will enter service with the Russian Strategic Missile Forces next year.
The test comes amid bitter tensions in Russia-U.S. relations, which have been strained over the Ukrainian crisis, the war in Syria and the allegations of Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Sergei Ivanov, a former Russian defense minister, said in televised comments that the Avangard constantly changes its course and altitude as it flies through the atmosphere.
He emphasized that unlike previous nuclear warheads fitted to intercontinental ballistic missiles that follow a predictable trajectory allowing it to calculate the spot where they can be intercepted, the Avangard chaotically zigzags on its path to its target, making it impossible to predict the weapon’s location.
A smiling Ivanov likened the weapon’s flight through the atmosphere to a pebble skipping off the surface of water.
Ivanov, who now serves as Putin’s adviser, said the Avangard could be fitted to the Soviet-made UR-100UTTKh intercontinental ballistic missile, which is code-named SS-19 Stiletto by NATO.
He noted that Russia has a stockpile of several dozen such missiles, which are in a factory-mint condition and not filled with fuel, allowing them to serve for a long time to come. Ivanov added that they could be put in existing silos, sharply reducing the costs of Avangard’s deployment.
“The Avangard has cost hundreds of times less than what the U.S. has spent on its missile defense,” Ivanov said.
He noted that Russia began to develop the Avangard after the 2002 U.S. withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and started to develop defenses against ballistic missiles.
Moscow feared that the U.S. missile shield could erode its nuclear deterrent, and Putin announced in 2004 that Russia was working on a new hypersonic weapon.
Ivanov recalled that when Russian officials warned their U.S. counterparts about the new weapon program at the time, American officials were openly skeptical about Russia’s ability to carry out its plan.
“We aren’t involved in saber-rattling, we simply ensured our security for decades to come,” he said.
A blow to morale: Afghan generals worry about US withdrawal
By KATHY GANNON
Saturday, December 22
ISLAMABAD (AP) — The Taliban welcomed news of the U.S. plan to withdraw half its troops in Afghanistan by the summer, as Afghan generals warned it would be a blow to the morale of the country’s beleaguered security forces who come under daily attacks from the insurgent fighters.
The announcement seems certain to complicate efforts to reach a peace deal, mostly because it gives the Taliban leverage by allowing them to hold off until a total U.S. withdrawal, or step up their demands over a weakened Afghan government.
“I believe the Taliban will see this as a reason to stall, and therefore it disincentivizes the Taliban to actually talk to the Afghan government, which it has refused to do,” said Bill Roggio, an Afghanistan analyst with the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Afghanistan’s security forces rely heavily on U.S. airpower against both Taliban and an upstart Islamic State affiliate, and Afghan military officials note the announcement by the Trump administration comes as the country’s security is at its worst since 2014, when more than 100,000 NATO troops pulled out of the country and handed off security to Afghans. The U.S. and NATO retreated into a training and advising role.
“A complete withdrawal of U.S. forces would very likely cause the Taliban to make gains in key areas throughout Afghanistan,” Roggio said. “This likely would cause the general collapse of the (Afghan National Security and Defense Force) as a cohesive fighting force and lead to the return of the warlords.”
President Donald Trump considers the war in Afghanistan a lost cause and has long pushed to pull the troops out. His decision was made public a mere few hours after he abruptly announced the U.S. was withdrawing troops from Syria.
Trump’s state of mind is sure to have given a sense of urgency to U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who has been working to reach a negotiated end to America’s longest war and has been pushing for a deal by April.
In an interview with Afghanistan’s TOLO TV on Thursday — hours before the withdrawal plans were announced — he noted Trump had campaigned for president on a promise to end the Afghan war, which has already cost Americans nearly $1 trillion. More than 2,400 American soldiers have also died in Afghanistan since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion.
“There was little doubt that Ambassador Khalilzad was always working with limited time and a zeal of desperation to achieve something before the president pulled the plug,” said Daniel Markey, senior research professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.
A Taliban official told The Associated Press the announcement was a positive step. Speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press, the official said Taliban officials think the promised departure could help the peace process because it could “lead to trust building that the U.S. wants a political solution.”
But there was no sign the Taliban were ready to move on the two major sticking points: Direct talks with the Afghan government and a cease fire while the two sides negotiate Khalilzad’s so-called “roadmap for the future of Afghanistan.”
Peace talks aside, the announced withdrawal has Afghan generals and analysts worried about the ability of the beleaguered Afghan National Afghan Security Force to stave off a Taliban insurgency unfettered by U.S. troops and their pounding air power.
The Taliban are already stronger today than they have been since their ouster in 2001, controlling or holding sway over nearly half the country.
Several high ranking Afghan military officials, who spoke on condition they not be identified because they were not authorized to speak to the media, said the morale of Afghanistan’s undertrained and poorly equipped security forces was already at a dangerously low ebb. The troops routinely complain about reinforcements that arrive too late, equipment that fails and even running out of food.
The officials called America’s withdrawal a defeat, comparing it to the U.S. evacuation from Vietnam and Russia’s 1989 forced withdrawal from Afghanistan that capped a failed 10-year campaign.
U.S. troops invaded Afghanistan in November 2001 in response to the Sept. 11 attacks. Their ouster of the Taliban returned to power former warlords, whose bitter infighting and runaway corruption had resulted in vast tracts of the capital Kabul being destroyed and given rise to the Taliban, who used a strict and harsh interpretation of Islam to restore calm to the country.
Ordinary Afghans have mixed feelings about the presence of U.S. and NATO troops. Many fear their departure believing it will strengthen the Taliban, yet criticize their presence for doing little to improve security, which has deteriorated. Afghans complain bitterly about their deeply corrupt government and see the U.S. — which largely bankrolls the government — as responsible.
Neighbor Pakistan, who has been harshly criticized by Trump for not doing enough to bring the Taliban to the table, had warned that a sudden departure of U.S. troops would result in chaos in Afghanistan and destabilize the region.
“The last thing it (Pakistan) wants is a radical Islamist state on its Western border, even if that eliminates or reduces Indian influence in Afghanistan,” said Shuja Nawaz, author and fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center.
Associated Press writer Amir Shah in Kabul, Afghanistan contributed to this report.
The other 2018 midterm wave: A historic 10-point jump in turnout among young people
November 8, 2018
Director, Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement in the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life, Tufts University
Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg receives non-partisan research funding from Ford Foundation, Democracy Fund, and McCormick Foundation. She is affiliated with Democracy Fund, TurboVote Challenge, Nonprofit VOTE and Generation Citizen but is not paid by any of these organizations.
Partners: Tufts University provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation US.
Voter turnout among 18 to 29-year-olds in the 2018 midterm elections was 31 percent, according to a preliminary estimate by The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University.
That’s the highest youth turnout my colleagues and I have observed since we started collecting data in 1994. It’s also a major increase from turnout in the 2014 midterms, which was 21 percent.
Young people showed decisive support for liberal candidates and ideas. About 67 percent of young people supported Democratic House candidates, compared to just 32 percent for Republican candidates. This 35-point gap is even larger than their preference toward Democrats in 2008, when President Barack Obama was first elected.
This preference no doubt helped some Democratic candidates in states such as Wisconsin, Montana and Nevada.
For example, Senator Jon Tester of Montana won his reelection by a narrow margin of less than 6,000 votes. Young Montanans, by favoring him by 67 percent to 28 percent, gave him a relative vote advantage of over 25,000 votes. If young Montanans voted like older Montanans did on Tuesday, Montana would have a Republican Senator today.
In many ways, this election cycle showed how different groups can create diverse paths to political engagement. It shows in the numbers, and importantly, in young people’s faces. Young people should be feeling powerful and hopeful that they can in fact exercise their votes to affect American politics.
Going back 40 years, young voters have a reputation of not showing up to the polls, especially in midterm elections. So how do we explain this year’s enthusiasm?
This fall, my colleagues and I conducted two large-scale national surveys of 2,087 Americans ages 18 to 24 to document and understand what Gen Zs are thinking, feeling and doing when it comes to politics.
Here’s what we found.
All signs pointed to wave of young people
The proportion of young people who joined protests and marches tripled since the fall of 2016, from 5 percent to 15 percent. Participation was especially high among young people who are registered as Democrats.
We also found that young people were paying attention to politics more than they had in 2016. In 2016, about 26 percent of young people said they were paying at least some attention to the November elections. This fall, the proportion of youth who reported that they were paying attention to the midterm races rose to 46 percent.
It’s clear that more young people were actively engaged in politics this year than 2016.
Cynicism and worry aren’t obstacles
To learn more about what might was motivating Generation Z to vote, we asked survey participants to rate their level of agreement with three statements.
“I worry that older generations haven’t thought about young people’s future.”
“I’m more cynical about politics than I was 2 years ago.”
“The outcomes of the 2018 elections will make a significant impact to everyday issues involving the government in my community, such as schools and police.”
In this year’s survey, we found that young people who felt cynical were far more likely to say they would vote. Other research has found that cynicism about politics can suppress or drive electoral engagement depending on the contexts.
Among young people who said “yes” to all three of those questions, more than half – 52 percent – said they were extremely likely to vote. Among young people who said “no” to all three of those questions, only 22 percent were extremely likely to vote.
Our poll results suggest political involvement in this generation is far above the levels we usually see among youth, especially in midterm election cycles.
In fact, almost 3 out of 4 youth – 72 percent – said they believe that dramatic change could occur in this country if people banded together.
This year’s voting surge by young people did not happen overnight. Nor was it driven by a single issue like gun violence, though Parkland no doubt played a very important role by activating many young people and voter engagement groups.
Our research shows that Gen Z is aware of the challenges ahead and they are hopeful and actively involving themselves and friends in politics. Beyond almost any doubt, young people have gotten involved and felt ready to make a change in American politics – and so they did.
This is an updated version of an article originally published on Oct. 19, 2018.
US envoy to anti-IS coalition quits over Trump’s Syria move
By MATTHEW LEE
AP Diplomatic Writer
Saturday, December 22
WASHINGTON (AP) — Brett McGurk, the U.S. envoy to the global coalition fighting the Islamic State group, has resigned in protest over President Donald Trump’s abrupt decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, a U.S. official said, joining Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in an administration exodus of experienced national security figures.
Only 11 days ago, McGurk had said it would be “reckless” to consider IS defeated and therefore would be unwise to bring American forces home. McGurk decided to speed up his original plan to leave his post in mid-February.
Appointed to the post by President Barack Obama in 2015 and retained by Trump, McGurk said in his resignation letter that the militants were on the run, but not yet defeated, and that the premature pullout of American forces from Syria would create the conditions that gave rise to IS. He also cited gains in accelerating the campaign against IS, but that the work was not yet done.
His letter, submitted Friday to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, was described to The Associated Press on Saturday by an official familiar with its contents. The official was not authorized to publicly discuss the matter before the letter was released and spoke on condition of anonymity.
In a tweet shortly after news of McGurk’s resignation broke, Trump again defended his decision to pull all of the roughly 2,000 U.S. forces from Syria in the coming weeks.
“We were originally going to be there for three months, and that was seven years ago – we never left,” Trump tweeted. “When I became President, ISIS was going wild. Now ISIS is largely defeated and other local countries, including Turkey, should be able to easily take care of whatever remains. We’re coming home!”
Although the civil war in Syria has gone on since 2011, the U.S. did not begin launching airstrikes against IS until September 2014, and American troops did not go into Syria until 2015.
McGurk, whose resignation is effective Dec. 31, was planning to leave the job in mid-February after a U.S.-hosted meeting of foreign ministers from the coalition countries, but he felt he could continue no longer after Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria and Mattis’ resignation, according to the official.
Trump declaration of a victory over IS has been roundly contradicted by his own experts’ assessments, and his decision to pull troops out was widely denounced by members of Congress, who called his action rash and dangerous.
Mattis, perhaps the most respected foreign policy official in the administration, announced on Thursday that he will leave by the end of February. He told Trump in a letter that he was departing because “you have a right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours.”
The withdrawal decision will fulfill Trump’s goal of bringing troops home from Syria, but military leaders have pushed back for months, arguing that the IS group remains a threat and could regroup in Syria’s long-running civil war. U.S. policy has been to keep troops in place until the extremists are eradicated.
Among officials’ key concerns is that a U.S. pullout will leave U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces vulnerable to attacks by Turkey, the Syrian government and remaining IS fighters. The SDF, a Kurdish-led force, is America’s only military partner in Syria
A second official said McGurk on Friday was pushing for the U.S. to allow the SDF to reach out to troops allied with Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government for protection. McGurk argued that America had a moral obligation to help prevent the allied fighters from being slaughtered by Turkey, which considers the SDF an enemy.
McGurk said at a State Department briefing on Dec. 11 that “it would be reckless if we were just to say, ‘Well, the physical caliphate is defeated, so we can just leave now.’ I think anyone who’s looked at a conflict like this would agree with that.”
A week before that, Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the U.S. had a long way to go in training local Syrian forces to prevent a resurgence of IS and stabilize Syria. He said it would take 35,000 to 40,000 local troops in northeastern Syria to maintain security over the long term, but only about 20 percent of that number had been trained.
McGurk, 45, previously served as a deputy assistant secretary of state for Iraq and Iran, and during the negotiations for the landmark Iran nuclear deal by the Obama administration, led secret side talks with Tehran on the release of Americans imprisoned there.
McGurk, was briefly considered for the post of ambassador to Iraq after having served as a senior official covering Iraq and Afghanistan during President George W. Bush’s administration.
A former Supreme Court law clerk to the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist, McGurk worked as a lawyer for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and joined Bush’s National Security Council staff, where in 2007 and 2008, he was the lead U.S. negotiator on security agreements with Iraq.
Taking over for now for McGurk will be his deputy, retired Lt. Gen. Terry Wolff, who served three tours of active duty in Iraq.
Jim Jeffrey, a veteran diplomat who was appointed special representative for Syria engagement in August, is expected to stay in his position, officials said.
IS militants still hold a string of villages and towns along the Euphrates River in eastern Syria, where they have resisted weeks of attacks by the U.S.-supported Syrian Democratic Forces to drive them out. The pocket is home to about 15,000 people, among them 2,000 IS fighters, according to U.S. military estimates.
But that figure could be as high as 8,000 militants, if fighters hiding out in the deserts south of the Euphrates River are also counted, according to according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict through networks of local informants. Military officials have also made it clear that IS fighters fleeing Euphrates River region have found refuge in other areas of the country, fueling concerns that they could regroup and rise again.
The SDF said Thursday: “The war against Islamic State has not ended and the group has not been defeated.”
Associated Press writer Susannah George contributed to this report.