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Terrorism & Security

A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

People wait before boarding an Aeroflot Airbus A330 plane heading to the Cuban capital Havana at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport June 27, 2013. (Alexander Demianchuk/REUTERS)

Long layover: Ecuador says it could take two months to decide on Snowden's asylum

By Staff writer / 06.27.13

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

For the fifth straight day former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden remains “in transit” in a Moscow airport, officials there say, while Ecuador announced his political asylum bid could take up to two months to approve.

"If he goes to the [Ecuadorean] embassy, we will make a decision," Ecuador’s foreign minister, Ricardo Patino, said yesterday. He acknowledged the parallel with WikiLeak’s founder Julian Assange who has been holed up in the South American country’s embassy in London for over a year.

"It took us two months to make a decision in the case of Assange, so do not expect us to make a decision sooner than that," Mr. Patino said.

Mr. Snowden is wanted by the US government after he leaked top secret information on US surveillance programs to The Guardian, The Washington Post, and a paper based in Hong Kong where he first sought refuge. The US revoked his passport, but he managed to flee Hong Kong Sunday. Reuters reports that Ecuador denies granting Snowden special travel documents.

Snowden was expected to leave Russia on Monday on a flight to Cuba, however he did not board the plane. The Los Angeles Times writes that some speculate Snowden has already left the Moscow airport and is slowly making his way toward Ecuador’s Embassy there.

Ecuador has come under fire for offering Snowden asylum, to which embassy official Efraín Baus told the White House, "Mr. Edward Snowden has requested political asylum in Ecuador ... this situation is not being provoked by Ecuador."

There have been calls in the US Congress to cut off aid to Ecuador.

"The fact is is that we're giving millions of millions of dollars to this country right now who may potentially be harboring somebody who could have been responsible for one of the most massive intelligence leaks in the history of both private contracting and our espionage world," national security analyst Aaron Cohen told Fox News in reference to Ecuador. "We've had trouble with these guys for a long time." 

Ecuador has received $144.4 million in US aid over the past five years, Fox reports.

Some speculate Ecuador is taking its time considering the asylum application in order to come across as seriously weighing the legal implications of Snowden’s asylum request; others point to the windfall of media attention Ecuador garners while the decision is pending.

Mr. Baus stated that Snowden’s application "will be reviewed responsibly, as are the many other asylum applications that Ecuador receives each year.” Ecuador does have an extradition agreement with the United States, but makes exceptions for political crimes, reports The Christian Science Monitor.

"This legal process takes human rights obligations into consideration," Baus said, inviting the US to submit its position on Snowden in writing so that it could be taken into consideration during the decision process.

Steve Striffler, a Latin America specialist at the University of New Orleans, wrote on CNN that Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa isn’t considering Snowden’s asylum request just to gain political points at home. He notes that after offering Mr. Assange asylum President Correa actually fueled opposition party criticism.

Politicians are always looking to score political points, and Correa has certainly had his moments. But when Correa offered Wikileaks journalist Julian Assange asylum in 2012, he had relatively little to gain politically beyond raising his international profile….

Similarly, Correa will score relatively few political points by embracing Snowden in 2013. Correa's stance is best seen as a principled one. In broad terms, Correa's openness to Assange and Snowden, as well as his decision to close a U.S. military base in Ecuador, is part of an effort to deepen Ecuadorian sovereignty while strengthening Latin America's ability to limit the influence of the United States in the region.

This is perfectly within the rights of an independent nation, even one that has historically followed the U.S. lead.

Many have criticized Ecuador for the apparent irony in its support of freedom of information when it comes to individuals like Assange and Snowden sharing top-secret information, but deterring expression at home. The country recently passed a media law that contains "questionable or dangerous provisions" to clamp down on criticism by the press according to Reporters without Borders. Correa has called reporters there "rabid dogs" and "assassins with ink," according to the Monitor.

There could be some immediate political and economic consequences for Ecuador if it does indeed grant Snowden asylum, as well. The renewal of preferential treatment for trading certain products including roses and tuna is on the table, reports The New York Times.

Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue told the Times, “The risks are enormous… It would bring the United States down very hard on him.”

Others, however, say preferential treatment was already at risk of not being renewed. “The US Congress was already unlikely to renew trade preferences for Ecuador that are set to expire this summer,” according to a second Monitor story.

“The US doesn’t have too many measures it can utilize, other than to criticize,” says Jonas Wolff, a senior research fellow at the Frankfurt-based Peace Research Institute.

The Guardian’s Stephen Kinzer says Ecuador is a good choice for Snowden because even if Ecuador’s government drastically changes in coming years, the region as a whole has moved away from falling in line behind US policy.

Because President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela was the most flamboyant of these defiant leaders, some outsiders may have expected that following his death, the region would return to its traditional state of submission. In fact, not just a handful of leaders but huge populations in Latin America have decided that they wish for more independence from Washington.

This is vital for Snowden because it reduces the chances that a sudden change of government could mean his extradition. If he can make it to Latin America, he will never lack for friends or supporters.

Clashes in tightly-controlled Muslim region of China leave 27 dead

By Staff writer / 06.26.13

A new outbreak of violence in China's far-western Xinjiang region, home to its Muslim Uighur minority, has left 27 people dead, according to state reports – the area's deadliest unrest since 2009.

According to state media, "riots" broke out in Lukqun, a township about 120 miles southeast of the regional capital, Urumqi, during which police opened fire on "knife-wielding mobs," reports Agence France-Presse.

Police shot at "mobs" who had attacked police stations, a local government building and a construction site, the Xinhua news agency said, citing local officials.

"Seventeen people had been killed ... before police opened fire and shot dead 10 rioters," it said. The mobs were also "stabbing at people and setting fire to police cars", the report said.

Nine police or security guards and eight civilians were killed before police opened fire, the report said, adding that three other people were taken to hospital with injuries.

AFP adds that Xinhua did not explain the cause of the violence, and that state officials were unresponsive to requests for comment.

The Associated Press reports:

A man in Lukqun contacted by phone said the area has been cordoned off and armed police officers were posted at road intersections. Police, anti-riot forces and paramilitary police were patrolling the town armed with pistols and machine guns, said the man, who refused to give his name out of fear of government reprisals.

“People are not being allowed to walk around on the streets,” he said before disconnecting the call.

Uighur activist Dilxat Raxit, based in Germany, issued a statement saying the violence was caused by China's “sustained repression and provocation” of the Uighur community.

Such events are not uncommon in Xinjiang, however, nor is the state's silence about them. The Christian Science Monitor reported just two months ago, after a similar clash between knife-wielding "suspected terrorists" and local authorities left 21 people dead, that "violence flares sporadically" in the region between its native population and job-seeking immigrants from China's Han majority. The worst instance occurred in 2009, when almost 200 people, mostly Han, were killed in riots across Urumqi.

Chinese officials have claimed in the past that such attacks were the work of Islamic separatists, and have attempted to quell outbreaks with a massive security presence in the region. But the native population says the problems run deeper.

"Local people complain that their culture and language are being eroded and that Han now outnumber original inhabitants, who are ethnic Uighurs, with linguistic and cultural ties to central Asian peoples," the Monitor's Peter Ford reported.

Ultimately, it is difficult to determine precisely what is happening in Xinjiang, Mr. Ford wrote in March 2012, because of the tight restrictions the Chinese authorities keep on media in the region. Writing after yet another attack by "violent mobs" that left 12 dead, he wrote that "the authorities have been largely successful in hiding what has been going on from outsiders."

The obvious way for a foreign reporter to find out what is really happening in Xinjiang or [the Tibetan region of] Sichuan would be to go there and talk to people. But that is not as easy as it sounds.

We are allowed to go to Xinjiang, but when I reported from there I found very few Uighurs brave enough to risk the punishment they feared if they were found to have talked to me. Never, in 30 years of reporting from five continents, have I found it so difficult to be a journalist. And after my return to Beijing, I discovered that plainclothes policemen had secretly followed me every step of my weeklong trip. ...

So the world is heavily dependent for news from such places on government-sanctioned reports from the official Chinese news agency, whose reports seem designed to obfuscate rather than clarify, and on exile groups who clearly have their own political agenda, however well-meaning they are.

A man walks by a gate at Cyber Terror Response Center of National Police Agency in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, June 25. South Korea said multiple government and private sector websites were hacked on Tuesday's anniversary of the start of the Korean War, and Seoul issued a cyberattack alert warning officials and citizens to take security measures. (Lee Jin-man/AP)

On anniversary of Korea War, cyber fireworks fly

By Staff writer / 06.25.13

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

As the Korean Peninsula awoke to commemorate the 63rd anniversary of the start of the Korean War today, major government and media websites in both North and South Korea appeared to be under electronic attack.

Seoul said it was investigating cyber attacks on the websites for the presidential Blue House, prime minister’s office, and a handful of major media organizations. The South Korean intelligence service is also looking into whether or not the shutdown of some North Korean sites was due to being hacked, reports The Associated Press.

According to South Korea's Arirang News, a message referring to North Korean president appeared on screens in Seoul’s presidential office this morning: “Hurrahs to Kim Jong-un, the president of a unified Korea!”

It is unclear who is responsible for these attacks and if they are linked. The hacker group “Anonymous” has warned that it would target North Korea due to its strict controls over Internet access, specifically citing today’s date, reports The New York Times.

Less than 1 percent of North Koreans have access to the Internet.

There are reports of Twitter users claiming responsibility for the attacks in the South today, “demanding that the Seoul government stop censoring Internet content and that its intelligence agency apologize for a recent political scandal in which government intelligence agents were accused of engaging in an online campaign to attack opposition candidates ahead of the Dec. 19, presidential election,” reports the Times.

Earlier this year a much more serious breach of Internet security in South Korea took down an estimated 48,000 computers and servers at banks and media institutions. Some banks were hamstrung for up to five days. North Korea was accused of being behind the cyber attack, the seventh such accusation from the South since 2008.

“Cyber attacks are much easier weapons for North Korea as they cost far less than missiles or nuclear tests, but they can send more people into a real panic,” Park Choon Sik, a Seoul Women’s University professor of cyber security, told Bloomberg at the time.

This last attack, in March, came just weeks after the United Nations slapped North Korea with renewed sanctions for conducting nuclear tests. Tensions heightened on the peninsula as a military hotline connecting the two countries was cut off, threats were made to close an important shared industrial complex, and North Korea warned of severing the Korean War armistice. The rhetoric of war went so far as to implicate a potential nuclear attack on various US cities.

According to The Christian Science Monitor’s correspondent in Seoul:

For all its bombast, North Korea may actually be reluctant to enter into a military conflict with the South and its US allies because of the alliance’s superior military strength. But cyberattacks can be harmful, create a climate of fear, and avoid any direct consequences.   

This type of attack suits North Korea.

“Cyberwar is right up their street. It’s cheap and deniable,” says Aidan Foster Carter, a Korea expert at the University of Leeds.

South Korea may also have “more to lose” than North Korea if “the inter-Korean conflict were to move into cyberspace,” reports a separate AP story. There are more Internet connections than there are people in South Korea, according to 2012 OECD data.

“Many daily tasks [in South Korea] are performed online, from banking and the purchasing of movie or train tickets to social interactions. As such, South Koreans have a lot to lose from a malicious attack on the country’s IT infrastructure,” according to the Monitor. 

Tens of thousands of people gathered in Kim Il-sung Square in North Korea’s capital to commemorate the start of the three-year-long Korean War and protest the United States today, according to AP. Thousands gathered in South Korea to mark the date, with military drills taking place near the demilitarized zone between the two countries, as well. 

In this 2004 file photo, Nanga Parbat, the ninth highest mountain in the world, is seen from Karakorum Highway leading to neighboring China in Pakistan's northern area. (Musaf Zaman Kazmi/AP/File)

Pakistan: Militants kill 10 mountaineers in 'well planned' attack

By Staff writer / 06.24.13

The Pakistani government has halted mountaineering expeditions on Nanga Parbat, a day after armed militants attacked and killed 10 foreign climbers and a local guide.

A Pakistani mountaineering expert told Agence France-Presse that some 40 climbers on the mountain, the second-tallest in Pakistan and ninth-tallest in the world, have been evacuated and that no further climbs would be allowed this summer.

“Local authorities have evacuated them. They have all been informed of this incident,” Manzoor Hussain, president of the Alpine Club of Pakistan, told AFP. “We are reviewing the overall security situation. The fallout apparently will be serious.”

“This [mountaineering] season is over for them,” Mr. Hussain added.

AFP reports that the 10 foreign climbers have been identified "as an American with dual Chinese citizenship, three Ukrainians, two Slovakians, two others from China, a Lithuanian and a climber from Nepal."

The Christian Science Monitor reported yesterday that the attack took place in the middle of the night, as several militants, dressed as members of the local paramilitary police, ambushed the base camp at the foot of Nanga Parbat. A spokesman for the banned terrorist group Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) told the Monitor and other media outlets that his group claimed responsibility for the attack.

“We will continue to target the foreigners until the drone strikes stop. This attack was particularly in revenge for the killing of our commander Wali-ur-Rehman. Our local Taliban faction in the area carried it out under our instructions,” TTP spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan said.

The Los Angeles Times reports that another militant group that operates in the area, Jundullah, also claimed responsibility for the attack in separate calls to the media. The Times writes that it isn't yet clear which group – if either – is responsible, and notes the claims could be a smokescreen by a third group, trying to deflect attention.

The BBC notes that because of the mountain's remoteness, the ambush – launched by up to 20 attackers – likely required a great deal of planning and preparation, not just tactically but physically as well. The BBC's M Ilyas Khan writes:

Officials in the Diamir district of Gilgit-Baltistan say the area where the gunmen struck is extremely remote and there are no roads and no means of transportation other than mules.

They say the attackers must have been well trained and well acclimatised. A lot of planning must have gone into conducting this operation. The area is a vast mountain desert, having approaches from three sides, each requiring 20 hours of walking; in practice two days of trekking.

The BBC adds that officials say the mountain's isolation should aid in the search for the gunmen, as they ought to be easy to spot from the air. Unconfirmed reports from local media claim that 37 people have been arrested so far in the investigation.

The attack is of particular concern to Pakistan's struggling tourism industry. The country's mountains were among the few regions regarded as safe from its ongoing struggle with Islamist militants. Experts told the Monitor that the attack could shatter that confidence, costing the country "billions of rupees."

“Around fifteen to twenty thousand tourists including mountaineers came to Pakistan each year during the summer season. Each one of them spends over five to six thousand dollars. The loss to Pakistan because of this attack will be in billions of rupees,” says Ghulam Nabi, a representative of Pakistan Tour Operators’ Association. “And it’s not just tourists that run away then, it also affects the foreign investor confidence."

The image of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl of Hailey, Idaho, an American soldier missing since 2009, is worn by an audience member as Bergdahl's father Bob, not pictured, speaks at the annual Rolling Thunder rally for POW/MIA awareness, in Washington, May 2012. The Taliban said yesterday it would consider releasing Bergdahl if the US released five members of the group being held at Guantánamo. (Charles Dharapak/AP/File)

Taliban offers to exchange US prisoner as it seeks international support

By Staff writer / 06.21.13

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

A Taliban spokesman said yesterday the group would consider releasing Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, an American soldier missing since 2009, if the US released five members of the Taliban being held at the US military prison in Guantánamo bay, Cuba.

The swap, the spokesman implied, could be the initial step of larger peace talks that have so far proved elusive but could be nearing as the Taliban makes a bid to lessen its status as an international pariah.

Blocking the release of the five men in exchange for Sergeant Bergdahl, who has been held by militants since 2009, is concern that they could return home to organize new attacks on US troops still in Afghanistan.

The strict security conditions that the Obama administration required to prevent them from fighting again – releasing the detainees to Qatar and barring them from leaving there –  scuttled the last attempt at peace talks in 2011, The New York Times reports.

The Times describes the five men in question:

Two were senior Taliban commanders said to be implicated in murdering thousands of Shiites in Afghanistan. When asked about the alleged war crimes by an interrogator, they “did not express any regret and stated they did what they needed to do in their struggle to establish their ideal state,” according to their interrogators.

There is also a former deputy director of Taliban intelligence, a former senior Taliban official said to have “strong operational ties” to various extremist militias, and a former Taliban minister accused of having sought help from Iran in attacking American forces.

The men are among the most high level detainees at Guantánamo. Without this deal, they would be among the last prisoners to be removed from the facility if it is closed, The New York Times reports. There are 18 Afghans total remaining at Guantánamo, but the others are not high level enough to be "bargaining chips."

Meanwhile, the possibility of peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government may have evaporated. CBS News reports that a senior envoy of Afghan President Hamid Karzai said the Taliban delegation "is still not sending the signals which would allow peace talks" to begin.

During a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Taliban's new office in Doha, Qatar, the group flew a flag representing the "Islamic Emirates of Afghanistan,” the name the group used during its rule over Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.

"In taking the name 'The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,' the Taliban is pretending it is a sovereign power," Ismail Qasimyaar, the government High Peace Council's chief international adviser, told CBS News. "They are trying to give the impression that the Doha office is an embassy or quasi-diplomatic mission."

The Los Angeles Times reports that the possibility of Taliban talks is causing regional players to pay sincere attention to the group, which has become a more formidable diplomatic foe as it becomes more politically savvy.

"It's early days, but India's watching this very carefully," said Rana Banerji, a New Delhi-based Central Asia expert and former Indian Cabinet Secretariat intelligence official. "The Taliban's moved on, become pretty sophisticated. Their media management is quite good, they're Internet savvy, things have moved on from 1996." 

Although the US pressured the Taliban to take down its provocative flag, "it succeeded in putting Karzai on the defensive with public relations antics and showmanship" and shining the spotlight on itself as it spoke about international cooperation, according to the Los Angeles Times. 

This is part of a broader Taliban image makeover, analysts said. The militants have softened their opposition to secular education and video technologies they once vehemently opposed as un-Islamic and embraced social media, frequently used to exaggerate the effectiveness of their attacks against international and Afghan forces or to take credit for attacks they didn't plan. Their website now issues news releases in five languages, complemented by a Twitter feed with more than 8,000 followers.

At a conference in December with Afghan officials, Taliban representatives expressed a willingness to share power and grant more rights to women, allowing them to choose their husbands, own property, attend school and hold jobs, all rights denied during Taliban rule.

Whether this is heartfelt or mere window dressing in an effort to better appeal to an increasingly educated and worldly Afghan electorate remains to be seen. Also unclear is how representative these initiatives are of different factions and generations in the Taliban.

The Taliban are trying to set themselves up well in the longterm, an analyst in Kabul told the Los Angeles Times. The US withdrawal in 2014 may not be the end of political dealings with the group.

"The Taliban vision is not 2013 or 2014, but beyond 2015," he said. "The Taliban are trying to get rid of the international and especially US sanctions and get their names removed from the black list. And they want political power in Afghanistan."

A general view of the Taliban office in Doha before the official opening in Doha, Qatar, Tuesday, June 18, 2013. (Osama Faisal/AP)

Symbolism of Taliban flag and banner upends Afghan peace talks

By Staff writer / 06.20.13

A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

The first talks between the US and Taliban set to take place in Qatar today are expected to be postponed, following diplomatic tensions related to the opening and naming of a Taliban office in Doha.

"It is a kind of Taliban establishment which we don't want," a member of Afghanistan's High Peace Council, Muhammad Ismael Qasemyar, told the BBC, referring to the newly opened Taliban office.

The opening on Tuesday was meant to be a step in the Afghan peace process after a year and a half of stalled efforts. However, the Taliban used the opportunity as a publicity stunt. The Taliban hung its flag along with a banner outside the office naming it “the Islamic Emirates of Afghanistan,” the name the group used during its rule over Afghanistan from 1996-2001. The group also said they planned to host meetings with members of the international community like the United Nations.

Essentially, what was meant to be an office dedicated to facilitating the peace process after a 12-year war in Afghanistan appeared to be something more akin to an embassy, according to The New York Times.  

“Through those pictures of the Taliban flag waving in the air and the banner on the office, it took people to see two countries, two flags, two legitimacies. The damage is already done,” a former Afghan official in Doha told the Times.

Many Afghans who saw footage of the Taliban office opening felt removed from a process that inherently involves them: bringing peace to Afghanistan, reports the Times. Editorial cartoons from the months leading up to the talks highlight a sense of skepticism, including one of a skewered dove and another showing US surprise at who they were entering into negotiations with.

As a result of the office-opening debacle, Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced his delegation would not attend the talks until the Taliban’s symbolic representation as an independent government was removed. Mr. Karzai also suspended bilateral talks with the US over extending its military presence in Afghanistan beyond the 2014 withdrawal date.

According to Reuters, the “squabble” could set the tone for “long and arduous negotiations to end a war that has raged since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan that followed the September 11, 2001 al Qaeda attacks on U.S. targets.”

The Christian Science Monitor’s Dan Murphy writes:

Karzai continues to gamble that the US can be bent to his will in a high stakes game of chicken, counting on President Obama to make compromises in his favor for fear of being seen as the president who "lost" Afghanistan. But whatever happens over the SOFA, or whether talks with the Taliban start in Qatar or not, they are not likely to mitigate the looming storm-clouds over the troubled country.

In a statement, Karzai rejected any US mediation role with the Taliban and insisted that talks take place inside Afghanistan. But the Taliban office in Qatar – a country that uses its oil and gas wealth to support Sunni Islamist causes around the world – had been in the works for 18 months. Inasmuch as the US has an exit strategy designed to prevent a hot civil war erupting again in Afghanistan, like the one that broke out after the Soviet Union's withdrawal in 1989, this is it. 

To be sure, the notion is now far-fetched of any negotiated settlement between the Taliban and Karzai, who is term-limited out of office next year at the same time America is scheduled to withdraw the last of its combat troops. US and other NATO forces are more capable than the Afghan National Army, and the Taliban is looking forward to more favorable fighting terrain. Make concessions now? Why would they? 

One unnamed US official told Agence France-Presse that “it was hoped talks would take place ‘in the next few days.’

But Bruce Riedel from the Brookings Intelligence Project told AFP, "If the prize is peace in Afghanistan it's got to become a process in which Afghans talk to Afghans. And Karzai has said he's not going to talk."

In an exclusive interview with the Associated Press, Taliban spokesman Shaheen Suhail in Doha said the Taliban first wanted to negotiate with the United States.

"We want foreign troops to be pulled out of Afghanistan," Mr. Suhail said. "If there are troops in Afghanistan then there will be a continuation of the war." Suhail also said a prisoner exchange is top on the Taliban’s agenda before beginning peace talks, saying it would “build bridges of confidence to go forward."

The only US soldier known to be held captive by the Taliban is Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, from Idaho. The proposed exchange would exchange Bergdahl for five senior militants currently held at the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

NATO soldiers walk towards a Chinook helicopter after a ceremony at a military academy on the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday. The Taliban killed four American troops at Bagram Airbase overnight and the Afghan government announced it was suspending negotiations with the US on an extended troop agreement Wednesday. (Rahmat Gul/AP)

Bagram Air Base attack: Four US soldiers killed as US seeks talks with Taliban

By Staff writer / 06.19.13

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

The Afghan Taliban claimed responsibility for an attack that killed four American troops and the Afghan government announced it was suspending negotiations with the US on an extended troop agreement today, casting a double shadow over peace talks between the US and the Taliban scheduled to begin tomorrow.

Sky News reports that the Taliban acknowledged it was behind a rocket attack last night on Bagram Air Base, launched just hours after the US announced it would be holding peace talks with the Islamist group on Thursday. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said: "Last night two big rockets were launched at Bagram which hit the target. Four soldiers are dead and six others are wounded. The rockets caused a major fire."

A senior defense official confirmed to NBC News that the four killed were Americans.

Separately, the US and Afghanistan had been discussing an extended presence for American troops in the country past 2014, when NATO forces are set to withdraw from all combat operations in the country. But in a statement released by Afghan President Hamid Karzai's office, the government said today that it was suspending those talks "in view of the contradiction between acts and the statements made by the United States of America in regard to the peace process."

Although the initial statement did not elaborate on the contradiction, a senior Afghan official told Reuters that the issue was over the "official identity" being given to the Taliban, who opened an office in Doha, Qatar, on Tuesday.

"The Doha office gave the Taliban an official identity, something we didn't want," the Afghan official said.

"The U.S. officials told us the office will be used to move peace talks forward, but not to give them an identity.

"The Taliban's flag and the banner of the Islamic Emirate was something we did not expect at the office," the official said, referring to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the name the Taliban used during their rule.

The BBC's Jonathan Beale, however, reports that the real issue is anger at Afghanistan not being included in the US-Taliban talks.

President Karzai clearly feels a sense of anger and betrayal over the way the US made that announcement. He thought there would be a commitment from the Taliban to engage with the Afghan government, to recognise the constitution and to renounce violence.

None of those promises were made. Hopes that these talks with the Taliban will go very far must be fading fast. Without the involvement of the Afghan government there is no peace process.

The deadly Bagram attack and the Afghan government's anger cast a pall over the planned Taliban talks, which US officials had been optimistic about. The Christian Science Monitor reported yesterday that the US was cautiously upbeat over a Taliban statement "committing to two principles that the United States had been calling on the Taliban to publicly adopt: One is simply that the Taliban support an Afghan peace process, while the second is that they oppose the use of Afghan soil to threaten other countries" -- the latter meant by the US as a reference to sheltering groups like Al Qaeda.

But the Monitor adds that even if Taliban negotiators are on board with such principles, that commitment may not extend to fighters on the ground -- a concern underscored by the Bagram attack last night.

Senior Afghan officials involved in reconciliation efforts said in comments to the Monitor last month that signals from Taliban leaders continued to be mixed and “confused,” with some factions suggesting an interest in pursuing a peace process while others demonstrated a prevailing interest in pursuing the summer fighting season and even planning ahead for efforts to disrupt next April’s national elections.

Indeed, one of the biggest potential challenges to any peace process will be the same one that has long been present, some regional experts say: the divisions in the Taliban’s vision for the way forward. What happens if the Taliban’s political leadership based in Pakistan signs on to a peace accord, only to have military leaders in the field reject the peace and vow to keep fighting?

Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, left, shakes hands with NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen during a ceremony at a military academy on the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday. Karzai announced at the ceremony on Tuesday that his country's armed forces are taking over the lead for security nationwide from the US-led NATO coalition. (Rahmat Gul/AP)

After 12 years, NATO passes security responsibility to Afghan forces

By Staff writer / 06.18.13

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

NATO troops in Afghanistan officially passed security responsibility to national forces at a ceremony in Kabul today, marking an important transition in the country’s 12-year war.

“Today is a historic day for Afghanistan,” President Hamid Karzai said, standing alongside NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen. The transition began in July 2011, followed by three subsequent rounds of provincial handoffs, reports Reuters.

“[NATO] will no longer plan, execute or lead combat operations," Mr. Rasmussen said, referring to the nearly 97,000 troops from NATO countries still stationed in Afghanistan. “By the end of 2014 our combat mission will be complete.” Until then, international troops will continue in a support role, providing training, intelligence, and ground forces as needed, reports the BBC.

Many at home and abroad harbor doubts that Afghan forces are prepared for the myriad security challenges that still exist. A December Pentagon report noted that “just one of the Afghan National Army's 23 brigades is capable of operating on its own without NATO support,” reports Foreign Policy. The transition has placed an outsized burden on Afghan troops, according to Reuters: “In one year, the Afghan state has lost more troops than NATO has across the entire war.”

Issues of insufficient training and low morale plague the 350,000-strong Afghan national army, according to the Los Angeles Times:

[The Army] isn’t ready, but is nevertheless being pushed into a commanding role by NATO members keen to withdraw their combat troops by late 2014 and end the high costs and body count of a protracted conflict.

Just 90 minutes before today’s ceremony in Kabul a bomb exploded killing three civilians and wounding at least 21 others, reports CNN. The bombing targeted parliamentarian Mohammad Mohaqiq, a senior member of the Afghan peace council. Mr. Mohaqiq survived the attack. 

Just last week the Taliban launched an attack on the Kabul airport, where NATO has an base. According to the LA Times, today’s bombing was the fifth high-profile attack in Kabul in a month and a half.

The Taliban said it would target foreign troops, UN officials and Afghans working with international forces at the start of its spring offensive, a time when warmer weather generally brings more intense fighting.

Proving that Afghan troops are capable of tamping down Taliban violence is an immediate goal, but a full peace agreement was high on the mind today as the Taliban is expected to open a political office in Qatar. President Karzai announced he would send a team of peace negotiators from a council formed in 2010 to the Gulf state, reports Bloomberg.

An Afghan diplomatic source told Reuters that the Taliban would open an office in Qatar as early as today. "This will help start the peace talks again," the unnamed source said. Reuters reports:

Karzai said three principles had been created to guide the talks - that having begun in Qatar, they must then immediately be moved to Afghanistan, that they bring about an end to violence and that they must not become a tool for a "third country's" exploitation of Afghanistan.

President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron watch as students work on a school project about the G-8 summit during a visit to the Enniskillen Integrated Primary School in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, Monday, June 17, 2013. The visit takes place before leaders from the G-8 nations are to gather to discuss the ongoing conflict in Syria, and free-trade issues. (Evan Vucci/AP)

As G8 kicks off, Snowden documents reveal snooping at past summit

By Staff writer / 06.17.13

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

The latest leaks from the US National Security Agency - that the US and UK have used past summits as an opportunity to spy on foreign officials - have cast a pall over the G8 summit set to start today in Northern Ireland.

The NSA and and its UK counterpart, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), conducted extensive surveillance during the 2009 G20 summit in London, according to information Edward Snowden provided to the The Guardian. The surveillance included intercepting communications, hacking smartphones, and even setting up fake Internet cafes where they could steal diplomats' passwords.

In the latest of its reports based on documents from Mr. Snowden, the Guardian writes today that internal GCHQ documents reveal a broad range of surveillance measures rolled out against opponents and allies alike during the summit, including:

• Setting up internet cafes where they used an email interception programme and key-logging software to spy on delegates' use of computers;

• Penetrating the security on delegates' BlackBerrys to monitor their email messages and phone calls;

• Supplying 45 analysts with a live round-the-clock summary of who was phoning who at the summit;

• Targeting the Turkish finance minister and possibly 15 others in his party;

• Receiving reports from an NSA attempt to eavesdrop on the Russian leader, Dmitry Medvedev, as his phone calls passed through satellite links to Moscow.

The information acquired was relayed to analysts "in near real-time" and to "ministers" in the government of then Prime Minister Gordon Brown. The operation ran for at least six months, according to one GCHQ internal review.

Another review said that "in a live situation such as this, intelligence received may be used to influence events on the ground taking place just minutes or hours later. This means that it is not sufficient to mine call records afterwards – real-time tip-off is essential."

The revelations come at an uncomfortable moment for the US and Britain, as both President Barack Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron are in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland today for this year's G8 summit, hosted by Britain. The two leaders will likely face difficult questions from their fellow world leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose predecessor and current prime minister was one of those being spied upon.

The Guardian reports that according to a briefing prepared by the NSA, the spy organization successfully eavesdropped on the communications of then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev during his visit to London for the G20 conference.

Medvedev arrived in London on Wednesday 1 April and the NSA intercepted communications from his delegation the same day, according to the NSA paper, entitled: "Russian Leadership Communications in support of President Dmitry Medvedev at the G20 summit in London – Intercept at Menwith Hill station." ...

The report says: "This is an analysis of signal activity in support of President Dmitry Medvedev's visit to London. The report details a change in the way Russian leadership signals have been normally transmitted. The signal activity was found to be emanating from the Russian embassy in London and the communications are believed to be in support of the Russian president."

The Guardian notes that Russian and American intelligence services can be expected to spy on each other. Public confirmation of such spying is rare and highly embarrassing.

But geopolitical rivals were not the only targets of NSA and GCHQ scrutiny: allies were as well. The Guardian notes that the scrutiny of Turkey – a British and American ally under NATO – appears to have had no security implications at all. Rather, the communications observed were "the everyday talk of financial civil servants and central bankers," apparently watched to give British diplomats a slight advantage in negotiations over financial regulation and reform.

"So why is GCHQ bugging them if the potential gains are so marginal?" the Guardian writes in an editorial. "The answer seems to be because it can, both technically and legally."

The Guardian goes on to say that "[t]he only boundary GCHQ appears to recognise is membership of Five Eyes, the tight coalition of western English-speaking states that share their signals intelligence: the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand." Any surveillance involving the citizen of another member of the coalition requires informing that citizen's government.

The revelations about the GCHQ and NSA efforts may cause trouble on both sides of the Atlantic, due to the closeness of the two organizations. Richard Aldrich, a professor of international security who has studied GCHQ, told The Christian Science Monitor last week that “All intelligence agencies share a lot of intelligence now because the targets are global, but the Anglo-American relationship is special to the extent that, since the 1970s, with processes and projects, at various points GCHQ and NSA are effectively the same organization.”

Smoke rises during what activists say was military operations led by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad against rebels, in Aleppo's countryside, Thursday. (George Ourfalian/Reuters)

Russia warns of Syria chemical weapons fabrication as US ups involvement

By Staff writer / 06.14.13

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

A senior Russian lawmaker accused the US of fabricating evidence of Syrian government chemical weapons use, comparing it to America's incorrect claims of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq ahead of the US invasion of that country in 2003.

The already slim hope that a joint US and Russia-organized peace conference on Syria planned for next month would accomplish anything, or even happen at all, got slimmer after the US announcement.

“Information about the usage of chemical weapons by [Syrian President Bashar al] Assad is fabricated in the same way as the lie about [Saddam] Hussein's weapons of mass destruction [in Iraq],” Alexei Pushkov, leader of the Russian lower house’s international affairs committee, said in a twitter comment, according to RIA Novosti.

The White House has insisted that Mr. Assad using chemical weapons would cross a "red line" prompting possible US military involvement. The Assad regime has been openly receiving weapons from outside sources, including Russia, throughout the conflict. 

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said today that Britain agrees with the US assessment that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons, Reuters reports. 

Mr. Pushkov said that President Barack Obama "is going the same way" as former President George W. Bush did, RIA Novosti reports. In the leadup to the Iraq war, the US released a slew of intelligence reports alleging that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, which it cast as a viable enough threat to justify invading. The WMDs never materialized.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Yuri Ushakov said that information the US provided to Russia "didn't look convincing," the Associated Press reports. 

He also said that Russia will not lift its hold on delivery of S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems it sold to Syria. President Vladimir Putin said the stay on delivery is to maintain the "regional balance of power," Bloomberg reports. “We’re not in competition over Syria,” Mr. Ushakov said.

He also warned that the peace initiative was threatened by the Obama administration's "hardening" of its stance, Bloomberg reports.

White House Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said that the White House had decided to provide additional support, including military support, to the rebels, but resisted saying explicitly that the US would provide arms. However, he did say that US aid from now on would be very different "in scope and scale" from previous assistance. 

The goal is to "strengthen their effectiveness," he said, according to RIA Novosti.

Business Insider reports that Russia may finally be looking to extricate itself from Syria. The Obama administration reportedly told Russia that it should "pull its support" from the Syrian regime, and analysts Business Insider spoke to say that Russia may heed the warning.

As we've already reported, there are Russian troops in Syria, and should a fight take place, those troops would be in harm's way.

Now Washington has kindly advised Moscow that a fight will take place, and, for fear of appearing aligned with chemical weapons use, Russia will likely make its exodus.

"Should the 'red line' of chemical weapon use be crossed, I think Russia will just want to be completely removed from the situation, and make sure that they retain influence in a post-Assad Syria," Ingrid Pederson, an expert in Near East and Russian geopolitics, told Business Insider.

"Russia is very self-interested and continuing to back Assad at this point does nothing for them and in fact could hurt their image with those who may come to control Syria after Assad falls," Pederson concluded.

Britain is holding back, at least for now. A spokesman for Prime Minister David Cameron said today that Britain is not ready to provide arms, but would consider a no-fly zone or other measure, Reuters reports. 

"Nothing is off the table," the spokesman said. "We are in urgent discussions with our international partners."

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