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Terrorism & Security

A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

Activists and priests pay respects to protesters who were killed in clashes with police Thursday in Kiev's Independence Square, the epicenter of the country's current unrest. A flag held by one activist reads 'For Ukraine.' (Efrem Lukatsky/AP)

Ukraine truce shattered by deadly fighting in Kiev (+video)

By Chelsea SheasleyStaff writer / 02.20.14

A daily roundup of terrorism and security issues.

Violent clashes between protesters and riot police erupted again in central Kiev Thursday morning, breaking an hours-long truce and casting doubt on the efforts of European negotiators in Kiev today.

Gunfire broke out in Kiev’s Independence Square early Thursday morning, leaving at least 22 people dead, as smoke continued to billow from burning barricades, according to the BBC. Eyewitnesses said they saw the bodies of some two dozen protesters, and officials said a police officer was killed.

The bloodshed jeopardizes the efforts of European officials who arrived in Ukraine Thursday in an attempt to broker talks between Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and opposition leaders. The foreign ministers of France, Germany, and Poland were expected to threaten sanctions and to pressure Mr. Yanukovych to hold early elections, The New York Times reports. The meeting was initially delayed due to security concerns, but the German Foreign Office confirmed on Twitter that it was under way.

The truce failed just after dawn, the Times reports, when “young men in ski masks opened a breach in their barricade near a stage on the square, ran across a hundred yards of smoldering debris and surged toward riot police officers who were firing at them with shotguns.”

Protesters pushed back the police in a continual racket of gunshots and by around 10 a.m. had recaptured the entire square, but at the cost of creating a scene of mayhem.

Yanukovych's office released a statement blaming the resumption of violence on the protesters. The Wall Street Journal reports that it wasn’t immediately clear who first broke the truce, and the Guardian reports seeing government snipers shooting at protesters.

One protester, Anatoly Volk, told the Times that "protesters had decided to try to retake the square because they believed a truce announced around midnight was a ruse. The young men in ski masks who led the push, he said, believed it was a stalling maneuver by President Viktor F. Yanukovych, to buy time to deploy troops in the capital after discovering that the civilian police had insufficient forces to clear the square."

“A truce means real negotiations,” Mr. Volk said. “They are just delaying to make time to bring in more troops. They didn’t have the forces to storm us last night. So we are expanding our barricades to where they were before. We are restoring what we had.”

Ukraine has been roiled by protests since November, when Yanukovych announced he would not sign an association agreement with the European Union – a pact his government had been under pressure from Russia to drop. It’s not immediately clear how European and Russian officials will respond to this week’s violence, which is the sharpest since the protests began.

The European leaders who are in Ukraine today said yesterday that they would be advocating for early elections as a measure to diffuse the violence, and would be holding out the threat of sanctions.

The purpose of the trip is “to make an attempt to bring the two sides to the table,” European Parliament President Martin Schulz said on Germany’s ZDF television, according to Bloomberg. “If that process doesn’t happen, we will have to think about sanctions,” including account freezes and travel curbs for Ukrainian government officials, he said.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that “when there is a situation as blocked as this, you need to turn to the people,” and that elections were the only option, according to The Wall Street Journal.

“Early elections, either presidential or parliamentary ones, are basic points to unlock the crisis and put an end to the violence in Ukraine,” an anonymous European diplomat told the Journal.

The European leaders were scheduled to return for a 3 p.m. local time meeting in Brussels with the rest of the EU foreign ministers to address Ukraine and the possibility of sanctions.

On the Russian side, officials have warned that they will delay their promised aid until after the situation calms down, the Journal reports.

Shortly after the gunfire erupted on Thursday morning, the Kremlin’s chief spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said Russia would continue providing economic aid to Ukraine but would wait until the situation stabilized first. 

Russia had offered Ukraine $15 billion in financial aid late last year and had already disbursed the first $3 billion tranche. A second tranche of $2 billion was planned to come this week, but has been postponed, officials said.

The Christian Science Monitor’s Moscow correspondent reports that “Moscow's mask of worried-but-not-intrusive concern over the unraveling events in Kiev is beginning to slip.”

Russian leaders Wednesday repeated previous assurances that they will not intervene in Ukraine. But experts say the Kremlin is using all its leverage behind the scenes to convince Ukrainian authorities to forcibly restore order, and may be rethinking its options if beleaguered President Viktor Yanukovych loses power to his outspokenly anti-Russian opponents amid an increasingly violent standoff in downtown Kiev.

"It seem absolutely clear that the three attempts Yanukovych has made to bring harsh pressure on the protesters occupying Kiev's Maidan square over the past three months, with the toughest being last night, were discussed and agreed in advance between Putin and Yanukovych," says Nikolai Petrov, a professor at Moscow's Higher School of Economics. "Unlike most Ukrainian players, whose interest is mainly in maintaining the status quo and muddling through without any radical breaks, Putin wants to win. He is absolutely interested in the scenario we see unfolding, with the opposition being crushed by force."

Flames rise from burned cars at the site of an explosion, near the Iranian cultural center (r.) in the suburb of Beir Hassan, Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014. A blast in a Shiite district in southern Beirut killed at least five people on Wednesday – the latest in a string of violent attacks linked to the war in Syria. (Hussein Malla/AP)

Suicide bombers in Beirut target Iranian cultural center (+video)

By Staff writer / 02.19.14

A daily roundup of terrorism and security issues

Twin suicide bombings near an Iranian cultural center in Beirut today, the latest in a string of violent attacks linked to the war in Syria, underscore the challenge facing Lebanon’s new government. 

The Al Qaeda-linked Abdullah al-Azzam Brigades claimed responsibility after two vehicles rigged with bombs exploded simultaneously during morning rush hour in a largely Shiite neighborhood. The blasts, which went off about 50 meters from an Iranian cultural center, killed at least five people and injured more than 100.

Blast walls were set up at the cultural center in anticipation of such an attack after the Iranian Embassy in Lebanon was targeted late last year, reports The Associated Press.

The militant group that claimed the attack said it was a response to Hezbollah and Iran's support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, according to Reuters. Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shiite militant group, is backed by Iran, and the two have been critical allies of Mr. Assad. Al Qaeda and other militant Sunni groups in Lebanon back the Syrian rebels.

"We will continue – through the grace of God and his strength – to target Iran and its party in Lebanon (Hezbollah) in all of their security, political and military centers to achieve our two demands: One, the exit of all fighters from the Party of Iran in Syria. Two, the release of all our prisoners from oppressive Lebanese prisons," the Abdullah al-Azzam Brigades said on Twitter. 

Wednesday's attacks come “just days after Lebanon announced a new coalition government, breaking 10 months of political stalemate,” reports The Los Angeles Times. The continued violence has tempered hopes that a more stable government could curb sectarian violence.

Prime Minister Tammam Salam formed a new cabinet over the weekend after almost a year of political deadlock. Mr. Salam said that today’s blasts were a message from terrorists trying to spread death and violence in his country.

"We got the message and we will respond to it with solidarity and our commitment to peace," Salam said.

Al Qaeda is not formally operating in Lebanon, writes The Christian Science Monitor’s Nicholas Blanford. However, the recurring attacks claimed by affiliate groups there over the past nine months has raised concerns that the terrorist group has enough support to expand its operations to Lebanon. 

“In 2006, [Sunni] people [in Lebanon] were not very interested in Al Qaeda, but now it has become a legend among the youth,” Sheikh Omar Bakri, a Salafist cleric, told the Monitor. “If Al Qaeda wants to move, there would be many people here who would support them.”

Lebanese Sunnis historically have avoided Islamist militancy and tend to favor mercantile enterprises in the coastal cities of Beirut, Tripoli, and Sidon over picking up a gun.

But Sunni discontent has risen in recent years at the growing influence in Lebanon of the powerful Hezbollah, a sentiment that has been further aggravated by the war in Syria where Hezbollah fighters battle rebel groups. In the poorer Sunni areas of Lebanon, such as the Bab Tebbaneh neighborhood in Tripoli, the black flag of Al Qaeda has become a common sight.

“We are softer than other [Salafists] because Lebanon is an open society. You cannot compare us to Iraqis or Afghans,” says Abu Bara’, a Sunni Salafist cleric and commander of a local militia in Bab Tebbaneh, using his nom de guerre. “But the reason [for increasing militancy among Lebanese Sunnis] is that the Sunnis feel under pressure because of the war in Syria and because of Hezbollah. We feel our backs are to the wall.”

Lebanon's proximity to Syria, and the steady stream of fighters and refugees moving across its border have led to Beirut becoming a “secondary front of the Syrian war,” The Los Angeles Times reports.

The ongoing string of bombings linked to the Syrian war has left Lebanon on edge and raised international concern about security in this strategically situated nation of 4 million, wedged between Syria and Israel along the Mediterranean. Lebanon is also home to more than one million refugees from war-ravaged Syria….

Lebanon is officially neutral in the Syrian war, but various Lebanese factions have lined up on different sides of the almost three-year-old conflict. The war has exacerbated tensions among Lebanon’s Sunni and Shiite Muslim populations.

A sign of a soldier blowing a bugle at Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang, North Korea, dwarfs passersby on Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2014. Hopes have been dashed that Kim Jong-un would improve North Korea's dismal human rights record. (Vincent Yu/AP)

China pushes back on UN report slamming North Korean rights abuses (+video)

By Staff writer / 02.18.14

A daily roundup of terrorism and security issues

A day after the United Nations released a damning report on crimes against humanity by North Korea – abuses that it warned China may be "aiding and abetting" – Beijing dismissed the UN effort as "unreasonable criticism."

"We believe that politicizing human rights issues is not conducive towards improving a country's human rights," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a briefing on Tuesday, underscoring the view of many diplomats that North Korea's ally is unlikely to support any action by the UN Security Council. 

The report, released Monday, warns of "unspeakable atrocities" within North Korea at the hands of Kim Jong-un's regime, “The gravity, scale and nature of [which] reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.”

The nearly 400-page report documents a litany of crimes, including "extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation."

In the DPRK [North Korea], international crimes appear to be intrinsic to the fabric of the state. The system is pitiless, pervasive and with few equivalents in modern international affairs. The fact that such enormous crimes could be going on for such a long time is an affront to universal human rights. These crimes must cease immediately. It is the duty of the DPRK and, failing that, the responsibility of the international community to ensure that this is done without delay.

The UN commission, which consisted of officials from Australia, Serbia, and Indonesia, advised that the UN should refer North Korea to the International Criminal Court at The Hague, and implement sanctions against those deemed most responsible for the ongoing abuses – potentially including Mr. Kim.

The commission also warned China that it should stop forcibly repatriating North Koreans fleeing their country, and extend them refugee status. The report found that most of those repatriated end up in the North's massive work camps, where the worst abuses take place.

But Ms. Hua, of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, cautioned against going to the ICC

"We believe that taking human rights issues to the International Criminal Court is not helpful to improving a country's human rights situation."

Hua would not answer what she said was a "hypothetical question" on whether China would use its veto powers if the report was brought to the U.N. Security Council for further action. 

She also denied that North Koreans fleeing into China were refugees, instead calling them illegal immigrants who had crossed the border for economic reasons.

Pyongyang also denied the report's findings as "fabricated and invented," reports Al Jazeera. "The DPRK [North Korea] once again makes it clear that the human rights violations mentioned in the so-called 'report' do not exist in our country."

The Los Angeles Times notes that many of the atrocities cited in the report are well known in the human rights community, but "their inclusion in a comprehensive document compiled by a U.N.-appointed panel appears to be unprecedented." The Times adds that the North Korean abuses have gotten worse under Kim Jong-un, whom many had hoped would prove to be less oppressive than his father, Kim Jong-il.

However, the trend appears to have reversed, especially in recent months. The execution in December of Jang Song Taek, the leader's uncle and the most reform-minded in the top leadership, triggered a purge that has seen dozens of people, possibly hundreds, executed or summarily deported to prison camps. Some reports say that among the victims have been children who committed no offenses but were related to those accused of political crimes.

And North Korea expert Leonid Petrov told Agence France-Presse that regardless of the report's findings and recommendations, the issue of abuses "cannot be resolved unilaterally, nor swiftly, without transforming the political climate of the whole region."

[Such change] would require, he argued, formally ending the Korean War -- which concluded in 1953 with a ceasefire rather than a peace treaty -- as well as diplomatic recognition of North Korea and the lifting of sanctions imposed for its nuclear programme.

Otherwise the North would remain in a "perpetual and assiduously cultivated state of emergency" in which human rights were sacrificed on the altar of regime survival.

"Without the goodwill of regional policymakers to address the problem of the Korean War especially, the issue of human rights in Korea is unlikely to be resolved," Petrov added.

A Syrian Arab Red Crescent member in red uniform helped a man Sunday as he walked to a bus evacuating the battleground city of Homs, Syria. Workers were able to get some aid to citizens and to evacuate others, but fell far short of their goals. (SANA)

As Syria talks deadlock, fury rises over inability to deliver aid

By Staff writer / 02.14.14

A daily roundup of terrorism and security issues

It has not been a promising 24 hours for mediation and humanitarian efforts in Syria. The UN's humanitarian chief lambasted the effort to provide aid to the Syrian city of Homs Thursday night, and today, UN special envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi warned that the failure of ongoing negotiations was "staring us in the face."

Efforts to negotiate greater access for aid agencies and a political solution to the conflict are both deadlocked, with Russia standing with the Syrian regime on one side of the widening divide, and the rest of the international community remaining largely on the other.

The Syrian government and opposition, as well as a host of other parties, have been in Geneva for another round of peace talks. But mediators are hung up on the question of whether a political transition can be discussed while fighting continues – and which issue is a higher priority. 

The Syrian government and Russia, the only country present that can exert influence over President Bashar al-Assad, insist that halting "terrorism" needs to happen first. The opposition, as well as the United States, have called for discussions of a political solution to begin immediately. Russia has accused the US of pursuing "regime change." 

The Wall Street Journal pinned any failure of the talks firmly on Russia, writing that "Russia upended talks on Syria's civil war Thursday by explicitly rejecting a proposal to begin discussing the possible removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power during any political transition."

Although many doubted the talks would yield an end to the war, Russia's position could spell the end of the talks, which have so far achieved only a modest measure of cooperation in providing aid to civilians in the besieged city of Homs. The person close to the talks said he didn't expect Mr. Brahimi to summon the sides back to Geneva for a third round of negotiations.

...

[Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady] Gatilov was then asked "point blank" whether Moscow supported discussing political transition in parallel to violent extremism, according to a person close to the talks.

"No," Mr. Gatilov responded, according to the person.

Mr. Gatilov then recited the Syrian government's long-standing position that the agenda of the negotiations must follow the so-called Geneva I communiqué line-by-line, beginning with the cessation of violence. Political transition is point six in the communiqué.

Russian intervention was seen by diplomats as perhaps the only gambit remaining in the negotiations that, after three weeks, appeared to be on their deathbed, diplomats said.

Even efforts to achieve temporary cease-fires for humanitarian access are deadlocked as the UN Security Council struggles to draft a resolution. UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos was unequivocally angry in her remarks to the Security Council:

The operational environment is more dangerous for our colleagues than ever. 15 more aid workers have lost their lives since October.

I told the Security Council that it is unacceptable that, four months since the members demanded action, international humanitarian law continues to be consistently and flagrantly violated by all parties to the conflict.

All parties are failing in their responsibility to protect civilians. We understand that a war is going on. But even wars have rules.

The UN brokered the cease-fire for the besieged Old City of Homs at the last round of Syria peace talks, something that has been described as the sole accomplishment of those talks. But the relief effort fell much too short of its goals, Ms. Amos said.

While remarkable, the events in the Old City cannot serve as a model. Why? It was a success, given the difficult circumstances, but I find it difficult to describe as progress.

  • Our people were under fire
  • We evacuated 1,400 people: there’s nearly a quarter of a million people to go, if you look at all of those in besieged communities
  • We provided food and medicines to 2,500 people: over three million people in hard-to reach communities. So yes to 2,500; no to three million.

I first raised the alarm about Homs 14 months ago. We cannot wait another 14 months to reach 1,400 more people. This is not only about the Old City of Homs. There are millions of people in dire need across Syria, their lives hanging in the balance.

The New York Times reports, however, that the top UN official in Syria said he hoped for similar deals elsewhere, indicating such deals could be a model if they included not only evacuations, but aid deliveries for those who chose to stay. 

The Security Council is struggling to reconcile competing proposals, one spearheaded by Luxembourg, Australia, and Jordan, the other by Russia, according to The New York Times. The first draft called for punitive measures against those who obstructed aid delivery and named specific places in need of aid, both of which Russia's draft lacked.

Meanwhile, another crisis looms. The BBC reports that the UN is warning of a major influx of refugees to Lebanon as regime forces lay siege to the town of Yabroud, which lies between Homs and the Lebanese border. It is the last rebel foothold in the Qalamoun area, valuable to both sides for its proximity to the highway running between Damascus and Homs.

North Korean chief delegate Won Tong Yon (center l.), walks with other delegates after crossing a military demarcation line, which has separated the two Koreas since the Korean War, for a meeting with South Korean delegates at the border village of Panmunjom, South Korea, on Friday. (South Korean Unification Ministry/AP)

Pyongyang yields on family reunions, as US, China discuss Korean denuclearization

By Staff writer / 02.14.14

Families torn apart by the Korean War might get the chance to reunite for the first time since 2010, after North Korea reversed course on its threat earlier this week to block the visits.

But while the apparent concession by Pyongyang could help thaw North-South relations on the Korean peninsula, efforts to put North Korea on the path to denuclearization remain hampered by disagreements between the US and China on how to move forward.

The New York Times reports that the apparent concession comes amid US Secretary of State John Kerry's fifth trip to Asia to tackle creeping concerns in the region, including North Korea’s nuclear program and the dispute between China and Japan in the South China Sea.

North Korea had threatened to walk away from earlier promises to let elderly relatives see one another, unless South Korea canceled military exercises with the United States. But Mr. Kerry rejected the demands, arguing that they have nothing to do with family reunification. If the visits are allowed to proceed, the Times reports, "the highly emotional family reunions would mark a notable sign that relations were thawing on the peninsula after years of high tensions triggered by the North’s nuclear and missile tests, which have resulted in United Nations sanctions."

But whether Kerry is able to make a difference on the nuclear front is unclear. His trip today to Beijing today is aimed at getting China to step up its role in the conflict. As a senior State Department official traveling with Kerry put it to The Washington Post: the trip is “an effort to translate ‘denuclearization’ from a noun to a verb.”  

The official, who was not authorized to be quoted by name, said Kerry wants to “enlist greater and greater levels of Chinese cooperation in actually helping to achieve the goal of denuclearization, not just talking about it."

China has remained North Korea’s main ally, but ties between the two were dealt a blow last year after North Korea went ahead with a nuclear test despite China’s pleas that it not. The US has hoped China would take the lead on calming down Pyongyang.

“No country has a greater potential to influence North Korea behavior than China,” Kerry said during his visit in Seoul. “All of the refined fuel that goes in to move every automobile and airplane in North Korea comes from China. All of the fundamental, rudimentary banking structure it has with the world passes through China. Significant trade and assistance goes from China to North Korea.”

China seems to have brushed off Kerry’s pleas, however. Asked about his remarks, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said China is already doing significant diplomacy. "China as a responsible, big country has been actively promoting and resolving the nuclear issue and has played its due role," Mr. Hua said, according to Reuters. "We have, through different channels, worked on the North Korea nuclear problem through the six-party nuclear talks, and have maintained close communication with the parties."

American diplomacy with China on North Korea is also complicated by China’s territorial claims in the Asia-Pacific and calls that the US stay out of its disputes with its neighbors, particularly Japan. "The United States is not a party in the South China Sea dispute, and should ... be careful in its words and actions, and do more that will benefit true peace and stability in the region rather than the opposite," Hua said.

Those comments came as an editorial in China's official Xinhua news agency criticized US positions in the dispute, reports the Associated Press. 

"The United States has to know that, while Beijing has always been trying to address territorial brawls with some neighboring countries through peaceful means, it will not hesitate to take steps to secure its key national security interests according to China's sovereign rights," Xinhua said.

"To dial down the flaring regional tensions, what Washington is expected to do right at the moment is not to blame China but press Japan to call off its provocative moves."

None of this bodes well for peace in the region, as the Economist points out. "North Korea, despite a little flurry of friendly gestures this week, is an ever-present, nuclear-armed threat to regional security. Indeed, worries about the stability of its regime are mounting," the author writes. "It would be in the interests of America, China, Japan and South Korea alike to agree on a strategy for dealing with the North. But they are too busy disagreeing among themselves."

Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers stand guard at the main gate of the Parwan Detention Facility Center on the outskirts of Bagram, some 30 miles north of Kabul, Afghanistan, Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014. (Massoud Hossaini/AP)

In a blow to US, Afghanistan releases suspected Taliban detainees (+video)

By Staff writer / 02.13.14

A daily roundup of terrorism and security issues

The Afghan government released 65 detainees today that US officials say are responsible for attacks on US and NATO troops. The release drew sharp criticism from US officials and further complicates already tense efforts to negotiate an extension to the US military mission in Afghanistan.

The men were released from the Parwan jail, previously known as the Bagram jail, outside of Kabul. The facility is a point of contention between the US – who says it has extensive evidence against the detainees – and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who “insists there is not enough evidence” against the detainees. The president has called the jail a “Taliban-making factory,” according to the BBC.

The government let free 65 of 88 Afghan detainees in the facility. The men were seen leaving the jail in small groups this morning, according to The New York Times. 

The release is the latest of a series of acts by President Karzai that have inflamed tensions with the US government. Congress has threatened to withdraw the aid that Karzai’s government and the Afghan security forces depend on.

Until last year, Bagram was under the control of US and NATO forces, who then handed it over to Afghan authorities. US officials earlier this week warned Kabul that the detainees are likely to rejoin the Taliban and, rather than being set free, should be prosecuted in Afghan courts, the Wall Street Journal reports.

The US military today released a statement noting its “strong concern about the potential threats these detainees pose to coalition forces and Afghan security forces and civilians.” 

“Detainees from this group of 65 are directly linked to attacks killing or wounding 32 US or coalition personnel and 23 Afghan security personnel or civilians,” the statement said. 

The US Embassy in Kabul said the Afghan government would “bear responsibility” for the decision. It complained that it had requested a thorough review of each case. "Instead, the evidence against them was never seriously considered.”

An Afghan panel created to review the detainee cases found that there was not enough evidence against the prisoners and ordered their release, Abdul Shakor Dadras, a member of the panel, told the Times.

Earlier this week, congressional leaders in Washington warned Kabul that a prisoner release could jeopardize US aid

In a congressional hearing Tuesday, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), said he would introduce a resolution condemning the release of the detainees and would urge his fellow lawmakers to cut off all development assistance to Afghanistan until after the election.

"President Karzai, in my view, is single-handedly destroying this relationship" with Washington, Sen. Graham said.

Rep. Howard McKeon (R., Calif.), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said the release would be in "direct contravention" of a U.S.-Afghan agreement on detentions.

"I am, frankly, appalled by the Karzai Government's complete lack of respect for our troops, men and women who are fighting to keep Afghanistan standing," he said in a statement.

The prisoner release comes at a time when US officials are already frustrated with Karzai’s refusal to sign a bilateral security agreement that would allow the US to maintain a small military force in Afghanistan for training and counterterrorism missions after the bulk of its troops withdraw in 2014.

Karzai stunned the US by refusing to sign the agreement, despite negotiating with US Secretary of State John Kerry last fall and getting approval from an Afghan council of elders. As a result, Obama administration officials are increasingly open to withdrawing all troops at the end of the year, the Times reports.

Increasingly vexed by Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s president, Mr. Obama is trying to figure out what form a residual force might take after the bulk of American troops leave by December and what would happen if no Americans stayed behind at all. The debate has rekindled some of the tensions within the administration that divided it in its early days.

With Mr. Karzai reinforcing Washington’s view of him as an erratic ally, skeptics of the administration’s Afghan strategy are increasingly open to withdrawing entirely at the end of 2014. Some in Mr. Obama’s civilian circle suspect that his generals may be trying to manipulate him with an all-or-nothing approach to a residual force. Military officials say they are trying to leave options open and are themselves more ambivalent than ever about staying.

The internal dynamics involved in the review, described by a variety of current and former White House, administration and military officials, are complicating what could be one of the most important decisions Mr. Obama makes this year. The president wants to avoid a repeat of what has happened in Iraq, which is again under siege, and yet he considers extricating the United States from Afghanistan a signature achievement for his legacy.

The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week that the US military, who originally wanted the agreement signed by the end of 2013, has revised its plans to allow the Obama administration to wait until after the Afghanistan presidential elections this spring.

The U.S. military has revised plans to withdraw troops from Afghanistan to allow the White House to wait until President Hamid Karzai leaves office before completing a security pact and settling on a post-2014 U.S. troop presence, officials said.

The option for waiting reflects a growing belief in Washington that there is little chance of repairing relations with Mr. Karzai and getting him to sign the bilateral security agreement before elections scheduled for the spring.

"If he's not going to be part of the solution, we have to have a way to get past him," said a senior U.S. official. "It's a pragmatic recognition that clearly Karzai may not sign the BSA and that he doesn't represent the voice of the Afghan people."

Peter Tomsen, writing for Politico, noted that those who wonder what Karzai is thinking should note his political motivations.

And while he’s not running in the Afghan presidential campaign that began Monday, Feb. 3, he does seem to be maneuvering for future relevance, drawing on his period in office and on his tribal status as leader of the important Pashtun Popalzai tribe in southern Afghanistan. Karzai may see the predominantly Pashtun Taliban gaining strength after the U.S. withdrawal, reckoning that he has much to gain and little to lose by bashing America. And becoming a more vocal critic of the United States obfuscates the American support that lifted him into the presidency after 9/11.

All of the leading contenders to replace Karzai criticize his anti-American course. His former foreign ministers Abdullah Abdullah and Zalmay Rasoul; his former close advisor and finance minister Ashraf Ghani; and his older brother, Qayyum Karzai, have all declared that they would sign the troop deal with the United States. Each seeks to separate himself from the president, stressing that Afghanistan must maintain a strategic partnership with the West.

But Karzai’s unlikely to change direction. He is probably attempting to position himself as a future bridge between the Taliban and the next Afghan government. He may hope to be seen as an elder tribal leader and international statesman deserving respect and deference by the winning candidate, and by Afghan political, tribal, ethnic and religious leaders generally—including the Taliban. He might decide to tone his anti-Americanism down a notch now that the presidential campaign is underway and, constitutionally, he is a lame duck. And while the U.S.-led coalition should not count on it, Karzai might even deputize a cabinet minister to sign the troop agreement on his behalf before his successor takes office. But don’t expect him to keep quiet.

Visitors watch photos at the national photo exhibition on the occasion of the Feb. 16, birthday of former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, at the People's House of Culture in Pyongyang, Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014. (Jon Chol Jin/AP)

Rare dialog between divided Koreas set for Wednesday

By Staff writer / 02.11.14

A daily roundup of terrorism and security issues

In a reversal of its recent bellicose stance, North Korea is apparently the main instigator for rare high-level talks scheduled to be held Wednesday between the two Koreas. 

There is no fixed agenda for the meeting, and the two countries – divided in the aftermath of World War II – are expected to discuss family reunions and annual South Korea-US military drills, reports Reuters. If the talks take place, they would be the weightiest official dialog between the Koreas since 2007.

That's a big "if." As Time reports, “the North is prone to sudden U-turns.” Earlier this month North Korea agreed to, then threatened to cancel scheduled family reunions, citing a US military sortie. And on Monday, it withdrew an invitation for a US official to travel to North Korea, potentially to secure the release of an American prisoner held there, Kenneth Bae. In September, a separate proposed round of reunions was canceled.

"It's premature to say whether this will lead to any breakthrough or policy change," Kim Yong-Hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul, told Agence France-Presse. He noted that if the talks happen, regardless of their outcome, it would be "meaningful."

"A clearer answer will come after the meeting, but it will provide an opportunity for both sides to read the minds of their leaders," Mr. Kim said.

According to The Associated Press, “it's unlikely that North Korea will halt the reunions this time because it needs improved ties with South Korea to help attract foreign investment and aid.”

South Korea’s deputy national security adviser will attend Wednesday’s talks, while North Korea plans to send a senior Worker’s Party official. North Korea’s expected demands include resuming a joint tourism project, increasing humanitarian aid, and reduced US-South Korean joint military drills, a South Korean academic Yoo Ho-Yeol told the AP.

When it comes to investment, Korea expert Aidan Foster-Carter argues that North Korea may be trying to diversify its dependence on China, and the next logical place to look is South Korea.

Pyongyang plays politics with family reunions: a sadistic heartbreaker for elderly Koreans yearning to see their long-lost kin, if only once and briefly.

But business seems to be another matter: Bring it on….

Yet, [North Korean leader Kim Jung-un] needs to depend less on China, so where else can he turn? Russia is iffy, despite the rail project – whose costs it seems keen to share. In 2012 Moscow finally wrote off North Korea’s accumulated Soviet-era debts of $10 billion. Another $1 billion is to be converted to 20-year loans for energy, education and healthcare, but nothing has been heard of this.

That leaves South Korea. Maybe the Young Marshal has finally grasped that fiery menaces and sabotaging Kaesong, as he did last spring, isn’t the most sensible approach to a richer cousin whose current leader is offering “trustpolitik”. Then again, the North’s persistent cynical game-playing over family reunions is a reminder how hard that trust will be to build.

The Christian Science Monitor noted last month that since taking power over “the world’s most secretive” nation in 2011, leader Kim Jung-un has yet to meet with any world leaders, and many North Korea observers are preoccupied by how little is known about Mr. Kim and what drives him.

“Purges in the North rose in the past year, and the number of public executions, which had been falling, doubled,” the Monitor reports.

To be sure, the 30-something leader (no one seems to know his precise age) faces a difficult conundrum. It is one he inherited from his grandfather and father: North Korea must open and reform to become economically viable. Yet real change will undercut the system of cult loyalty that provides the rationale for the Kim family's existence. Change could bring collapse.

"We don't know and maybe never knew what balance in the DPRK [North Korean ruling party] looks like, but we can now say this is not balance," says Scott Snyder at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, speaking of [Kim’s uncle] Mr. Jang's assassination. "A peaceful outcome is harder to see. North Korea is pushing the peninsula towards confrontation."

Civilians carry their belongings as they walk towards a meeting point to be evacuated from a besieged area of Homs February 9, 2014. Six hundred people left the besieged ruins of rebel-held central Homs on Sunday, escaping more than a year of hunger and deprivation caused by one of the most protracted blockades of Syria's devastating conflict. (Yazan Homsy/REUTERS)

Syria peace talks resume as fraught humanitarian cease-fire ends in Homs (+video)

By Staff writer / 02.10.14

A daily roundup of terrorism and security issues

Peace talks between the Syrian government and the opposition resume again today in Geneva. But with the two sides still far apart on even the most basic issues, this round appears unlikely to show more progress than the first, which ended 10 days ago without any steps toward a negotiated solution.

The United Nations' special envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi, who is mediating between representatives from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime and the rebel forces arrayed against it, was scheduled this morning to meet with both groups separately in their hotels in Geneva, reports Agence France-Presse. It is unclear whether the two groups will meet face-to-face today, or how long the current round of talks is meant to last.

But the obstacles to any agreement between the two sides remain largely unchanged from two weeks ago, when the dialogue between the two sides was notable largely for its pervasive insults, Bloomberg notes. The sole concrete achievement, an agreement to enable the delivery of humanitarian aid and the evacuation of the most vulnerable civilians from stricken areas, fell far short in its implementation. 

Mr. Assad insists that there can be no discussion of Syria's future, and that the only issue to be considered is how to deal with "terrorists." Some rebel factions do indeed have ties with Al Qaeda and other Islamist militant groups, but the Syrian regime has used the term broadly to describe all opposition groups.

For their part, the rebels insist that Mr. Assad's departure is a prerequisite of any future Syrian government, and say that plotting a course for a post-Assad Syria is a key goal for the talks.

The chasm between the two sides proved unbridgeable during the first round of talks, which one UN official lamented had not saved a single life, The Christian Science Monitor reported at their close. But the Monitor added that a handful of modest positives came out of the first round:

...[T]he Syrian opposition – despite its fractiousness and what some critics say is its lack of diversity (both in terms of gender and representation of the panoply of opposition forces) – is widely seen as having got a boost from both the Geneva talks and from the international Syria conference in Montreux, Switzerland, that preceded the Syrian dialogue.

The opposition’s chief representative, Ahmad Jarba, comes out of Switzerland a clear winner, say not just opposition representatives but US officials and some independent analysts. The president of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces got high marks for his speech at the Montreux conference, which was carried in parts of Syria. ...

But perhaps most important, some say, is simply that the two sides sat down in the same room together. ...

“It is, I think, significant that throughout the week, the two sides agreed to stay in the room and, working with Lakhdar Brahimi, to talk to each other. That is not a small thing,” [a senior US official told journalists], “given that this conflict is now almost three years old."

However, the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict through a network of Syrian activists, the violence on the ground appears to have worsened since the first round of talks, the BBC reports. 

The Observatory said that 304 people were killed across the country on Saturday, including more than 100 civilians.

On Sunday, opposition activists said at least 11 people were killed in the northern city of Aleppo when government helicopters dropped barrel bombs - crude weapons comprising cylinders packed with explosives and metal fragments - on rebel-held neighbourhoods.

Over the weekend, aid groups attempted to deliver food and other supplies to Homs, among the hardest hit in the war, under an agreement brokered with the Syrian government that also allowed for the evacuation of women, children, and older men. Residents have been trapped in the besieged city with little to no food or other daily essentials. But the cease-fire fell apart in execution, The New York Times reports. 

A three-day humanitarian cease-fire in the Syrian city of Homs was supposed to be a small breakthrough, a moment of relief for civilians trapped in a grim civil war.

But mortar rounds and gunfire struck near aid convoys, damaging vehicles and leaving victims lying in the streets. Snipers fired on civilians as they fled their besieged neighborhood. Others refused to leave, fearing a massacre of those left behind. Limited food made it in, and some of the nearly 700 people who reached safety said they had been surviving on one meal a day and that some of their neighbors had resorted to eating grass.

Though few expect the international peace talks that resume in Geneva on Monday to end the war, many hope they will make life less brutal for ordinary Syrians by creating local cease-fires and opening up access to aid.

But what took place in Homs highlights the tremendous difficulties plaguing even modest humanitarian efforts, making it unlikely that the episode will emerge as a model to be repeated elsewhere.

And Reuters adds that the Syrian government came under fire in the Hague today for missing another deadline in the schedule to dismantle its chemical weapons, after failing to hand off critical chemical materials on Wednesday. Anti-Assad Western powers, led by the US, slammed Syria for the missed deadline, its second since the process began. Russia, Assad's key international backer, meanwhile defended the government and argued that transporting the materials through contested territory was proving difficult.

The next deadline falls Mar. 31, when most of the toxic substances are scheduled to be destroyed onboard a US naval vessel, the Cape Ray. But analysts warn that the divide between the US and Russia imperils the plan.

"The odds of Syrian compliance increase if Washington and Moscow speak with one voice, but that isn't happening at present," Amy Smithson, a chemical weapons expert at the U.S. Monterey Institute, a leading think tank, told Reuters.

"These two countries are both key to the potential success of chemical disarmament in Syria, not to mention a settlement to the overall conflict, so hopefully they will rapidly find a way to resolve this impasse," she said.

Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland leaves after a news conference at the US embassy in Kiev, Ukraine, on Friday. Ms. Nuland's telephone conversation about the political crisis in Ukraine was leaked on the Internet – which the US blamed on Russia. (Gleb Garanich/Reuters)

Just how much spying are the Russians doing?

By Staff writer / 02.07.14

A daily roundup of terrorism and security issues

An intercepted telephone call in which the top American official in Europe essentially tells the European Union to “stuff it” on Ukraine – but in far less diplomatic terms – is certainly damaging for its content.

But the source behind the interception could become the more pressing story, as the Olympic Games in Sochi kick off today: The US is blaming it on Russia.

The telephone call from last month, between US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and US Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt, was first covered in the media by the Kyiv Post, and captures exasperation on the part of Ms. Nuland at the way the EU had, to date, sought to end the increasingly violent standoff.

Nuland apologized for her remarks, but the US had harsh words for Russia. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki called it a “new low” in Russian “tradecraft,” according to a transcript of the press conference.

The recording was subtitled in Russian and released on YouTube anonymously. But according to Ms. Psaki, an aide to Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin then tweeted in English: “Sort of controversial judgment from Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland speaking about the EU,” according to Bloomberg. The aide later denied that Russia had any role in the video's release, and said he found it on a social networking site, reports the Associated Press.

But "the video was first noted and tweeted out by the Russian government. I think it says something about Russia's role," White House spokesman Jay Carney said to NBC.

The Christian Science Monitor's Dan Murphy adds that it also says something about the US role as well. While he notes that the recording "could have been easily edited to make it appear the participants were saying things they weren't saying," it also "is a reminder of the disconnect between US government assurances that it doesn't meddle in nations' internal politics and its actual behavior."

"This was not a conversation analyzing unfolding events and how to respond to what comes next," Mr. Murphy writes. "This was about molding a situation according to US interests."

Many newspapers made immediate comparisons between these snooping allegations and that of National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, who has released information revealing widespread American spying on its allies across the globe. Mr. Snowden is currently in Russia, after being granted asylum from US prosecution.

But it’s from Russia that stories of surveillance are currently emanating, as the Olympic Games open today.

The latest stir is from Dmitry Kozak, the deputy prime minister responsible for the Olympic preparations, in describing Russian claims that western visitors are intentionally trying to sabotage the success of the event. "We have surveillance video from the hotels that shows people turn on the shower, direct the nozzle at the wall, and then leave the room for the whole day," he said, as The Wall Street Journal recorded it.

Officials quickly attempted to backpedal from the statement, but not before headlines around the world asked if shower-time would be under Russian state surveillance.

According to the Journal:

A spokesman for Mr. Kozak later on Thursday said there is absolutely no surveillance in hotel rooms or bathrooms occupied by guests. He said there was surveillance on premises during construction and cleaning of Sochi's venues and hotels and that is likely what Mr. Kozak was referencing. A senior official at a company that built a number of the hotels also said there is no such surveillance in rooms occupied by guests.

But what you say in your hotel room will likely be listened to, according to a story in the Monitor by Mark Clayton yesterday.

“Unlike any other Olympics, including in Beijing and London, digital and other communications transmissions during the Sochi Games are expected to be virtually transparent to Russian intelligence,” cyber security experts told him.

“It’s not ‘if’ your conversation is being monitored. It definitely is – so be wise what you say over the phone,” Drew Porter, senior cybersecurity analyst with Bishop Fox, a US-based corporate cybersecurity consulting firm, said. “Remember that your conversations over phones and Internet-connected devices are no longer private.”

Pakistani religious clerics and members of Taliban's negotiating committee, from left to right, Professor Ibrahim Khan, Maulana Sami-ul-Haq, and Maulana Abdul Aziz, answer a question during their press conference in Islamabad, Pakistan, Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2014. (Anjum Naveed/AP)

Pakistan-Taliban peace talks: A stall tactic?

By Staff writer / 02.06.14

A daily roundup of terrorism and security issues

Peace talks between the government and the Pakistan Taliban began today after a false start earlier this week, as Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif comes under increasing domestic pressure to deal decisively with the insurgents.

Members of the Pakistan Taliban (TPP), a loosely organized militant group that is affiliated with but distinct from the Taliban in Afghanistan, have been trying for years to topple the government in Islamabad and establish Islamic rule. Thousands of civilians have been killed since the group rose to prominence in 2007, reports the BBC, and the first month of 2014 saw an uptick in Taliban attacks across the country.

The talks, which were delayed on Tuesday because government negotiators failed to show up, follow a spate of attacks in January that killed scores of civilians and soldiers and intensified demands that Mr. Sharif stem the violence.

Sharif accepted the TPP’s offer to send representatives to discuss a “roadmap” for future peace talks after support began building for a military operation against the militants, leading to confusion about the government’s strategy, Michael Kugelman wrote in The Diplomat this week.

In recent days, Pakistani media reports have revealed that the government and military are planning a full-scale offensive in the tribal areas in March.

...

On January 27, a majority of parliamentarians from the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party voted in favor of a military operation against the TTP. On January 28, a top PML-N official, Rana Sanaullah, declared that the country was “on a war footing.”

But then, the very next day, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced the formation of a committee to take another look at peace talks with the TTP.  He insists that he won’t authorize an operation in North Waziristan “without consensus of all stakeholders”—even though many opposition leaders, including the fervently pro-talks Imran Khan, have said they’d throw their support behind an offensive.

What’s going on here? The government may be trying to pick a fight with the Pakistani military, which is less enthusiastic about negotiations. Perhaps officials want to launch talks on the assumption that they will fail and therefore help generate more public support for military action. Or maybe Islamabad is just confused, indecisive, or scared (PML-N candidates refused to condemn the TTP during last year’s election campaign, and party officials have even asked the TTP not to attack their Punjab province bastion). Yet one thing is clear: If Pakistan does ultimately implement a more muscular countermilitancy strategy, don’t plan on it being a rousing success. On the contrary, it may create more problems than it solves.

Political commentator Tariq Ali writes in The Guardian that the talks “may produce a temporary cease-fire, but not much more.” He argues that the problem lies with Afghanistan – and Pakistan's determination not to allow Indian influence to build there after international troops withdraw at the end of the year.

However horrific the spate of recent bombings, the heart of the problem remains Afghanistan. It is not the case that the TTP and related networks are so powerful that their leaders cannot be found, captured, charged and punished. The fact is that, with the impending withdrawal of the US from Afghanistan, Pakistan's intelligence service, the ISI, and its bosses in Pakistan cannot afford to offend the TTP too much. Islamabad has developed the theory of "strategic depth": keeping Afghanistan out of the hands of India's allies as a defensive strategy against India. This was always slightly absurd, given that both India and Pakistan are nuclear powers and any serious conflict would be a disaster for both countries.

Also, the Pashtuns in Afghanistan have always resented the British division of their lands and quite a few in Pakistan feel closer to their Afghan brethren than the regimes in Islamabad. The Taliban veil has masked this hostility and given it religious colours, but, underneath it all, the national question remains strong. If a section of the ISI supports the armed networks, it is difficult for other wings of the ISI to close it down.

A lasting solution, which may well not be the one favoured by many Pakistanis, will come after the US and its auxiliaries have left the country. The puppet president, Hamid Karzai, is aware of all this, which is why he has declared: "The Taliban are our brothers," and denounced the British presence in Helmand. He will probably try to promote Pashtun nationalism to weaken Islamabad. The stakes are high for all sides.

Another weakness of the talks is that both sides may simply be stalling, the BBC reports. Representatives on both the government and Taliban negotiating teams “have no real power,” they posit, and the talks are “just talks about talks.” Past negotiating efforts failed. 

Some analysts believe the government is simply buying time and that they are actually waiting for July 2014, when US forces withdraw from Afghanistan, creating a scenario whereby Pakistani militants could spill over the border to fight in Afghanistan. 

For the Taliban side, sources in the tribal areas say that these talks are also a way of buying time and postponing any possible military intervention in their region.

The Economist (paywall) concurs, writing that the talks are merely a government effort to gain enough time to prepare a military offensive against the TPP.

Yet a growing view is that Mr Sharif really is set on eventual military action, and that talks are about winning time. In the past few months the prime minister has been busy replacing the country’s president, army chief and chief justice. He has tried to keep on good terms with the army—a delicate act with Pervez Musharraf, a former dictator claiming a dodgy heart, on trial for treason. Mr Sharif and the new army chiefs appear to be rubbing along, helped by the fact that his government is a bit less incompetent and crooked than the previous crew. Meanwhile, he has tried to improve the economy and forge ties with India. A lot going on, in other words. Besides, political support for a military push is much harder if talks have not been tried first.

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