Peace with the Taliban? Trump warned of Afghan pullout risks
By DEB RIECHMANN
Thursday, January 31
WASHINGTON (AP) — Trump administration claims of progress in talks with the Taliban have sparked fears even among the president’s allies that his impatience with the war in Afghanistan will lead him to withdraw troops too soon, leaving the country at risk of returning to the same volatile condition that prompted the invasion in the first place.
Discussions between a U.S. envoy and the Taliban are advancing weeks after the administration said it wanted to begin drawing down troops in Afghanistan. That has prompted some critics to note that President Donald Trump is telegraphing a withdrawal — the same thing he accused President Barack Obama of doing by saying he wanted to end the American combat mission in 2014.
“It’s an effort to put lipstick on what will be a U.S. withdrawal,” said Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador to Kabul under Obama.
A negotiated settlement to America’s longest war poses a dilemma for Trump. He has often declared he wants to end lengthy overseas military entanglements, something he made clear in December by declaring the Islamic State group defeated in Syria and announcing he was pulling 2,000 American troops from that country over the objections of his top foreign policy advisers.
The stakes are higher in Afghanistan, a conflict that has cost 2,400 American lives and hundreds of billions in taxpayer dollars. The U.S. invaded the country to oust the Taliban and al-Qaida in October 2001 in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and the CIA director warned as recently as Tuesday that Afghanistan could once again become a terrorist haven.
But now even fellow Republicans worry that reports of progress will embolden Trump to withdraw troops from Afghanistan before the region is stable and will reintroduce the conditions that first ensnared America in the conflict. The Taliban now control nearly half the country and carry out near-daily attacks, and foreign-policy experts fear that any progress on protecting women and minorities in the country could be lost if the militant group is once again part of the government.
The top Republican in Congress, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, cautioned the president against a hasty exit from the war.
“While it is tempting to retreat to the comfort and security of our own shores, there is still a great deal of work to be done,” McConnell said Tuesday. “And we know that left untended, these conflicts will reverberate in our own cities.”
James Dobbins, special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan during the Obama administration, said Trump “seems to have abandoned” the conditions-based strategy he espoused in 2017. The future of troops in Afghanistan is anybody’s guess, he said.
“I don’t think anybody, including probably him, can predict his behavior,” Dobbins said.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Tuesday that the administration’s priority is to “end the war in Afghanistan, and to ensure that there is never a base for terrorism in Afghanistan again.” Afghan officials hope Trump will explain his intentions in further detail during his State of the Union address next week.
Taliban officials, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media, said that the two sides had reached an understanding about the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops and that the militant group had made assurances that Afghan soil would not be used again for attacks against the United States or others.
On the U.S. side, Trump’s Afghanistan envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, said, “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, and ‘everything’ must include an intra-Afghan dialogue and comprehensive cease-fire.”
That’s something the Taliban have refused to do, though they said Wednesday that they aren’t seeking a monopoly on power in a future Afghan administration but are instead looking for ways to co-exist with Afghan institutions —”tolerate one another and start life like brothers.”
If the Taliban agree to talk to the Afghan government and stop fighting while they do so, the negotiations could be a “significant step,” Dobbins said. If they don’t agree, “then the whole thing is null and void.”
Moreover, he said, the U.S. should stay until a peace deal between the Taliban and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government is implemented.
“If the U.S. leaves once the Afghans begin talking to each other, those talks will end and the war will resume,” Dobbins said. “If the U.S. leaves after they’ve come to an agreement but before it’s implemented, that agreement will never be implemented and the war will resume.”
Nicholas Burns, a career foreign service officer and former undersecretary of state during George W. Bush’s administration, said he thinks Trump is right to find a way to bring U.S. troops home from Afghanistan. But he, too, thinks that the president’s impatience is the driving force behind current talks with the Taliban.
“I think there’s an advantage to going slowly here,” said Burns, who is now at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. “Go quickly and we risk giving away too much to the Taliban.”
The Pentagon has been developing plans to withdraw as many as half of the 14,000 U.S. troops still in Afghanistan.
Acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan told reporters Tuesday that there has been no change in the U.S. military strategy in Afghanistan, which is to force the Taliban to the peace table by realigning troops to train and advise Afghans and by getting greater support from the region.
Talks led by Khalilzad must be given time to work, Shanahan said. Yet nobody knows how long Trump is willing to wait.
In November, Khalilzad told Afghan journalists that he wanted to see concrete results by spring. Trump gave Khalilzad six months to show results, according to a former Afghan official, who is privy to details about the negotiations and spoke on condition of anonymity to protect his sources of information about the talks.
The official said the militant group refuses to negotiate with the current Afghan government and insists on the creation of an interim government. Once that happens, the group wants to convene a grand national assembly to change the Afghan constitution to make it more to their liking, the former Afghan official said.
The official said the Taliban don’t see that a U.S. pledge to withdrawal is contingent on a cease-fire and a requirement to negotiate with the Afghan government. Moreover, the official said, Ghani remains upset that the U.S. is talking to the Taliban without representatives from his government present.
It also remains unclear how the U.S. could verify Taliban pledges that terrorist groups won’t use Afghanistan as a staging area for attacks.
“If there were an eventual peace agreement,” CIA Director Gina Haspel told a Senate panel on Tuesday, “a very robust monitoring regime would be critical and we would still need to retain the capability to act in our national interest if we needed to.”
Associated Press writer Kathy Gannon in Islamabad contributed to this report.
Report: Afghan forces still shrinking, security gaps growing
By ROBERT BURNS
AP National Security Writer
Thursday, January 31
WASHINGTON (AP) — As the Trump administration pushes for peace in Afghanistan, a new U.S. watchdog report says Afghan security forces are shrinking, gaps in security are growing, and the Taliban are largely holding their own despite a surge in American bombing.
These trends reflect what U.S. military officials call a stalemated war, more than 17 years after U.S. forces invaded following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Gauges of battlefield momentum have changed little over the past year, according to a watchdog agency known as the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. In a report to Congress on Thursday, it said the Afghan government controls or influences 54 percent of districts, down from 56 percent a year earlier, and the Taliban’s share slipped from 14 percent to 12 percent. Contested territory increased from 30 percent to 34 percent.
The Pentagon insists that military pressure on the Taliban is mounting. Last year the U.S. vastly increased its use of air power in support of Afghan forces. According to U.S. Central Command data, U.S. aircraft dropped 6,823 bombs in the first 11 months of 2018. That compares with 4,361 bombs dropped in all of 2017.
Even so, the Afghan government has been unable to expand its control of the country, and analysts say an outright military victory by either side is beyond reach.
Amid reports that President Donald Trump is considering withdrawing as many as half of the 14,000 U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has been publicly emphasizing the sacrifices his troops are making in fighting the Taliban. Ghani was reported to have said at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last weekend that 45,000 Afghan security personnel had died since September 2014. President Barack Obama ended the U.S. ground combat role against the Taliban at the end of 2014 while focusing more on training and advising Afghan forces.
The heavy losses suffered by Afghan forces partly explain why Kabul is unable to build its army and police to their authorized strength of a combined 352,000. Thursday’s inspector general report said the army and police are at a combined total of just over 308,000, down from 312,000 a year earlier and nearly 316,000 in 2016. The cost of arming, training, paying and sustaining those forces falls largely to the U.S. government at more than $4 billion a year.
Although U.S. commanders have long argued they are making progress toward enabling the Afghan government to defend its own people, Trump has said many times that he doubts the wisdom of continuing the war. His Afghanistan envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, said in recent days the U.S. and the Taliban agreed in principle to a framework for peace, although important elements are yet to be settled, including buy-in by the Afghan government.
Taliban officials, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media, said the two sides had reached an understanding about the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops and that the militant group had made assurances that Afghan soil would not be used again for attacks against the United States or others.
Afghan officials hope Trump will explain his intentions in further detail during his State of the Union address next week.
In a report to the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said neither the Afghan government nor the Taliban will be able to gain a strategic military advantage in 2019 if U.S.-led coalition support remains at current levels.
“Afghan forces generally have secured cities and other government strongholds, but the Taliban has increased large-scale attacks, and Afghan security suffers from a large number of forces being tied down in defensive missions, mobility shortfalls, and a lack of reliable forces to hold recaptured territory,” his report said.
Associated Press writers Deb Riechmann in Washington and Kathy Gannon in Islamabad contributed to this report.
Italy slides into recession, darkening outlook for Europe
By COLLEEN BARRY and PAN PYLAS
Thursday, January 31
MILAN (AP) — Italy has fallen back into recession, intensifying concerns about the 19-country eurozone economy and a possible flare-up in the debt market jitters that haunted the bloc in recent years.
The Italian economy, the third-largest in the eurozone, contracted by a quarterly rate of 0.2 percent in the fourth quarter of 2018, the national statistics agency said.
Following a 0.1 percent drop in the previous three-month period that means Italy is in a technical recession, defined as two straight quarters of economic contraction — just four years after its last one.
Italy’s recession is one reason why the wider eurozone slowed in 2018, along with uncertainties related to Brexit, the China-U.S. trade spat and new vehicle emissions standards.
Though the eurozone is performing better than in the dark days of the debt crisis, which threatened to break up the euro currency, it’s still lagging the U.S. economy, which is projected to have grown about 3 percent in 2018. As a result, unemployment in the eurozone is about double the U.S.’s 4 percent at 7.9 percent.
The eurozone economy as a whole grew by a meager 0.2 percent in the final quarter, the same as in the previous quarter, according to provisional figures released Thursday by the Eurostat statistics agency.
It expanded by 1.8 percent in 2018 overall, its weakest rate in four years. That’s lower than had been anticipated a year ago, when the bloc was expected to slow only slightly from 2017’s strong 2.4 percent rate.
The Italian economy has become an acute source of concern over the past few months, partly as a result of the new populist government’s spat with the European Union’s executive Commission over its budget plans, which has undermined business confidence and seen Italian borrowing rates in bond markets spike higher.
The government, elected against the backdrop of economic disappointment after years — even decades — of stagnant growth, wants to ramp up spending to get the economy going. It wants to provide more social security payments and to roll back a pension reform.
The plan means Italy would not reduce its debt load, which at over 130 percent is the highest in Europe after Greece.
The EU Commission is still haunted by the memory of the debt crisis, which required eurozone governments, along with some assistance from the International Monetary Fund, to bailout a number of countries. The Commission has insisted that the Italian government rein back on its spending plans lest it loses control of its budget and the faith of bond market investors.
Though most economists think the budget impasse with the Commission has undermined confidence in the Italian economy, the country’s premier, Giuseppe Conte, sought to downplay the recession and placed the blame firmly on the trade spat between the United States and China, which he says has weighed on Italian exports.
“This is a transitory factor,” he told reporters in Rome.
The head of Italy’s UNC consumer advocate organization, Massimiliano Dona, said the weak figures raise questions over the Italian government’s prediction that the economy will grow by 1 percent in 2019. He said that could mean the government will have to adjust its spending plans.
Italy hasn’t been the only reason why the eurozone slowed in 2019. Germany, Europe’s biggest economy, suffered an unexpected contraction in the third quarter largely due to changes in emissions standards that hurt auto sales. And uncertainty over Britain’s exit from the EU has weighed on sentiment, as has the fear of a global trade war stoked largely by growing tensions between the United States and China.
Separate economic indicators point to further weakness at the start of 2019 and most economists expect a difficult period ahead if the main causes of uncertainty are not addressed soon.
“The continued decline in sentiment indicates that the underlying pace of growth has slowed even further,” said Christoph Weil, an economist at Commerzbank. “Uncertainty about economic developments in China, the unresolved trade conflict between the U.S. and China and Brexit continue to weigh on the economic outlook for 2019.”
Pylas reported from London.
The Fed changed its strategy on interest rates – here’s what it means
January 31, 2019
Associate Professor of Finance and Business Economics, University of Washington
Thomas Gilbert does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
University of Washington provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.
The Federal Reserve just took the monetary policy equivalent of a sharp 90-degree turn.
On Jan. 30, the U.S. central bank signaled that it was done raising benchmark interest rates after two years of aggressive rate hikes. As such, the Fed held its target rate steady at a range of 2.25 percent to 2.5 percent.
This stands in sharp contrast to six weeks ago, when the Fed was forecasting two hikes in 2019 and at least one more in 2020.
The abrupt change was maybe not a complete surprise given the market jitters in December following its last decision to raise interest rates. Back then, investors reacted negatively to the prospect of further rate increases slowing the U.S. economy, which has been performing well. Today, there are growing concerns about slowing growth abroad, which increases the risk of a domestic slowdown.
In my view as a scholar who studies how financial news affects markets, the Fed’s decision to keep rates where they are is a way for it to signal its awareness of significant and increasing risks on the horizon. By declaring that it “will be patient,” the central bank is giving itself plenty of room to maneuver if things get worse.
US economy going strong
The Fed’s two main goals are maximum employment and price stability. And by both measures, conditions in the U.S. are about as good as you can get.
Jobs growth continues to be strong, with companies adding 312,000 jobs in December. Wages are rising and the unemployment rate has hovered below 4 percent since July. In September, it reached a 49-year low.
Inflation, meanwhile, was 1.9 percent at the end of 2018, close to the Fed’s target of 2 percent.
More than that, the U.S. economy has been on a tear for much of the past year and a half, posting some of the strongest growth figures in five years.
Global headwinds and the shutdown
Unfortunately, that’s not the end of the story. In his press conference after the decision, Fed Chairman Jerome Powell pointed to several increased risks and headwinds that could throw sand in the well-oiled U.S. economic machine.
For one thing, we still don’t know the full impact of the 35-day partial government shutdown, but it will for sure lead to lower first-quarter GDP growth. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the cost of the shutdown at US$11 billion, which will be offset in coming quarters by about $8 billion of increased activity as a result of starting the government back up. It is also unclear if lawmakers and the president will reach a deal before the three-week truce is up in February.
In addition, surveys of consumer and business confidence have been edging lower. The risk of disruption to the global supply chain from tariffs, trade wars and Brexit as well as slower growth in major economies like China and the European Union remains high.
Taken together, these seemingly contrarian numbers – solid domestically but weak internationally – have led the Fed to dramatically change its stance on the path of interest rates.
One way to interpret this abrupt change is that, while the Fed continues to believe that GDP will grow by more than 2 percent in 2019, the risks have clearly increased.
Is this to say that the Fed views a recession as more likely? Perhaps. But by keeping interest rates steady, the central bank is giving the economy as much breathing room as possible, allowing businesses and consumers to access capital at lower borrowing costs. Moreover, it is quite likely that no rate increases will be considered until spring at the earliest.
That doesn’t mean it is time to start stocking up on canned goods. But the latest Fed move does suggest that the end of the current economic expansion – which will soon be the longest on record – may be closer than previously thought.
Opinion: ‘Cyber Security by Logo’ Won’t Work
By Kevin Curran
The arrest of Sabrina Meng, the CFO of Huawei, has thrust a global Chinese technology company into the public spotlight. In addition to smartphones and laptops, Huawei sells the switches and routers used to run many of the world’s telecommunications networks. It is poised to become the leader in 5G, the fifth-generation wireless technology that will underpin many sectors of tomorrow’s digital economy.
America worries that China’s technological ambitions will thwart U.S. plans for continued global dominance. It has long accused Huawei of having ties to the Chinese government, and is pressing its allies to ban the company’s equipment from their networks. Some have done so; others are weighing their options.
Although U.S. pressure to block Huawei is based more on geopolitical and commercial considerations than on any actual threat, the United States stokes fear by waving the red flag of cyber security.
To alleviate this concern in the United Kingdom, in 2010 Huawei established a Cyber Security Evaluation Centre (CSEC) in Banbury, England, to scan the company’s equipment and software code for vulnerabilities. The center is run by Huawei along with some of its customers and is supervised by GCHQ, the British signals intelligence agency.
This sensible approach to managing risk reflects a fundamental truth about cyber security: that the only way to make sure a piece of software does not contain back doors is for independent experts to audit the code. This is a far more effective strategy than banning individual companies in an attempt to achieve “cyber security by logo.”
The CSEC model is not perfect. In July, the fourth annual CSEC report to the U.K.’s National Security Adviser identified two “shortcomings in Huawei’s engineering processes.” First, the software code built by Huawei’s engineers sometimes produces different outcomes in the tests run by CSEC than it does when it’s installed in actual U.K. telecom networks. Second, GCHQ found that some software used by Huawei’s third-party suppliers is not updated often enough to be secure.
Yet exposing such shortcomings is exactly what the CSEC is designed to do. Huawei has responded by pledging to spend $2 billion over the next five years to improve the way it develops and maintains software.
For its part, Ireland seems quite happy with Huawei. No warnings have been issued by Ireland’s Department of Communications or its telecom regulator. Its largest mobile provider, Eir, is using Huawei equipment to link the country’s mobile network with equipment provided by Ericsson. Eir says it has no concerns and “would not have selected Huawei if we believed there was any risk for our customers.”
In the United Kingdom, Huawei has been supplying access gear to fixed and mobile networks for more than 15 years. For the last four, the Banbury facility has subjected Huawei’s gear to rigorous testing by experts. If there was a smoking gun, someone should have found it by now.
Perhaps that’s why Ireland hasn’t imposed any restrictions on Huawei. One hopes that other countries will follow suit and resist the fear-mongering that might otherwise push them to make irrational decisions that protect no one and impose unwanted costs on businesses and individuals.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Kevin Curran is a professor of cyber security with the School of Computing, Engineering, and Intelligent Systems at Ulster University in Ireland. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.