Islamabad, Jan 9 (AP/UNB) — The Afghan president's special peace envoy expressed hope Wednesday that the war that has ravaged this country for over 17 years and cost the United States about $1 trillion will end in 2019.
However, Mohammad Omer Daudzai also cautioned there won't be peace until the Taliban, who have held several rounds of talks with Washington's special peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, agree to direct talks with the Afghan government.
"We are naming 2019 as a year of peace for Afghanistan," Daudzai summed up his optimism in an interview with The Associated Press
The Taliban have so far refused direct talks with Kabul despite pressure by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and even Pakistan, where Washington says the Taliban leadership is headquartered.
In response, Washington has suspended hundreds of millions of dollars in reimbursements to Pakistan under a Coalition Support Fund paid out by the United States to its partners in the war on terror.
President Donald Trump has repeatedly expressed his displeasure with Pakistan, accusing Islamabad of harboring militants. Pakistan denies the charge and says its influence over the Taliban is overstated.
Daudzai, who was appointed last month, made his first visit to the region to Islamabad — an indication of Pakistan's significance in finding peace.
Pakistan has "influence" over the Taliban but "forcing" them into talks is unproductive, said Daudzai, urging Islamabad instead to "encourage them to come to the negotiation table, make them realize it is to their benefit."
Daudzai said Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan's "heart and mind is in the right place. We are hopeful. We have received all the right signals."
Trump appears to have grown increasingly frustrated with the Afghan conflict — a war he promised to bring to an end during his 2016 election campaign. Last week, he criticized the U.S. military's performance in Afghanistan saying "I gave our generals all the money they wanted. They didn't do such a great job in Afghanistan."
Trump last week also for the first time publicly stated that the U.S. was in negotiations with the Taliban.
"We're going to do something that's right. We are talking to the Taliban. We're talking to a lot of different people," he said.
Until now, the U.S. State Department has not confirmed direct talks with the Taliban and Khalilzad, the U.S. envoy, has avoided direct reference to the Taliban, saying he has had contacts with all the players in Afghanistan's protracted conflict.
The State Department late Tuesday said Khalilzad has started another tour of the region that will take him to India, China, Pakistan and Afghanistan. This is his first visit since his appointment that did not include Qatar, where the Taliban maintain a political office and where he has held extensive talks with the religious movement.
Khalilzad's decision to bypass Qatar could reflect his frustration with Taliban officials, following their last meeting in November in the United Arab Emirates.
Daudzai told the AP that Khalilzad had been led to believe by Saudi Arabia that the Taliban would hold direct talks with the Afghan government in the UAE. As a result, Khalilzad asked President Ashraf Ghani to send his representatives. He sent a delegation, including national security adviser Hamdullah Mohib. The subsequent refusal by the Taliban infuriated Ghani, Daudzai said.
The Taliban have stubbornly refused direct talks with Kabul, demanding the U.S first announce a schedule for the withdrawal of foreign troops, as well as prisoner releases and the removal of the Taliban leadership from the U.N. terrorist list.
Pentagon officials earlier this month said they planned to withdraw 7,000 troops from Afghanistan by the summer. Currently, about 14,000 American soldiers are deployed there, mostly to train and advise Afghan security forces and carry out counter-terrorism operations.
Daudzai said the Afghan troops, battered by near-daily Taliban attacks, can survive a U.S. troop withdrawal but would "for some time to come need U.S. air support."
He also warned the U.S. against discussing troop withdrawal in talks with the Taliban that do not include Kabul.
London, Jan 9 (AP/UNB)— Britain's government and its lawmakers were set to clash Wednesday, as Prime Minister Theresa May brought her little-loved Brexit deal back to Parliament, a month after postponing a vote on the agreement to stave off near-certain defeat.
The House of Commons was beginning five days of debate on an agreement with the European Union setting out the terms of Britain's departure from the bloc on March 29.
A vote, initially slated for mid-December, is now scheduled for Jan. 15 — and the government still looks likely to lose.
May called off the December vote at the last minute when it became clear that a majority of lawmakers — from the governing Conservatives as well as opposition parties — opposed the deal, a compromise that has left both pro-European and pro-Brexit politicians unhappy.
May promised to seek reassurances from the EU on the most contentious issue, the status of the Northern Ireland-Ireland border. But the bloc refuses to reopen the agreement, and opposition to the negotiated deal remains strong among British lawmakers.
Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the main opposition Labour Party, said the delay "has achieved nothing beyond wasting a month."
Amid the stalemate, pro-Brexit members of Parliament are urging the government to ramp up preparations for leaving the EU without a deal. But many lawmakers, and businesses, say that would cause economic turmoil, as goods moving between Britain and the EU suddenly faced customs checks, tariffs and other barriers.
On Tuesday, legislators determined to prevent a "no-deal" Brexit handed the government a symbolic defeat by backing an amendment to the Finance Bill that puts roadblocks in the way of government spending on preparations for leaving the EU without a divorce agreement.
The vote, which saw 20 legislators from May's Conservative Party rebel and side with the opposition, indicates that a majority in Parliament opposes leaving the EU without an agreement and will try to stop it happening.
But there is no clear majority for any single alternate course. Among the competing proposals are seeking a new deal, calling a general election or holding a second EU membership referendum.
The Labour Party said it would try to trigger an election by calling for a no-confidence vote in the government if May's deal is defeated next week. There's no guarantee Labour could marshal the majority support in Parliament needed to topple the government — and even if it did, a new election would not automatically stop the Brexit countdown clock.
A top European parliamentarian urged British lawmakers to show "responsibility" over the divorce deal.
Manfred Weber, a German conservative who heads the biggest group in the European Parliament, said in Berlin that "our colleagues in Britain's lower house carry great responsibility now — the agreement is on the table."
News agency dpa reported that Weber said everyone must realize that a no-deal withdrawal would "lead to very difficult, perhaps even chaotic situations."
Britain's de-facto deputy Prime Minister, David Lidington, said the only way to avoid a disruptive no-deal "is for Parliament to endorse and ratify a deal."
"I don't think that the British public are served by fantasies about magical alternative deals that are somehow going to sort of spring out of a cupboard in Brussels," Lidington told the BBC.
He said the choice was between "this deal, or it is no deal, or ... to reverse the 2016 referendum entirely."
Kinshasa, Jan 9 (AP/UNB)— Anti-riot police with water cannon and armored vehicles surrounded Congo's electoral commission on Wednesday ahead of the delayed announcement of the results of the presidential election.
Residents of the capital, Kinshasa, said the heavy security presence was a bad sign, with some recalling the violence that followed past disputed elections.
It "may be a message that the publication (of the results) won't meet the expectations of the Congolese people," resident John Kabamba said.
The first results could be announced as early as Wednesday. Police installed metal barriers and blocked traffic outside the electoral commission as it continued meetings that began late Tuesday to discuss the results compiled so far.
The preliminary results of the Dec. 30 vote had been expected on Sunday, but the commission indefinitely delayed the announcement, to the frustration and growing suspicion of many Congolese. Some said the delay is allowing manipulation in favor of the ruling party.
"Seeing all these barriers, it proves that (the commission) doesn't need or doesn't want to give us the name of the person who was elected," said Kinshasa resident Beni Babutu.
The vast, mineral-rich Central African country is choosing a successor to departing President Joseph Kabila, in power since 2001. He backs ruling party candidate Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, who is under European Union sanctions for a crackdown on Congolese protesting two years of election delays while he was interior minister.
Leading opposition candidate Martin Fayulu, a Kinshasa lawmaker and businessman, has urged the electoral commission to announce the true results as quickly as possible and warned it not to "play with fire, it is very dangerous." He said the delay is to "fudge the results" and warned that his coalition would release its own figures if the official ones are in doubt.
Spokesmen for both Shadary and the other top opposition candidate, Felix Tshisekedi, have indicated that their candidates won. Tshisekedi's party on Tuesday called him the "presumed winner" and indicated that he has had contact with Kabila "to prepare a peaceful and civilized transfer of power." Kabila adviser Kikaya Bin Karubi, however, denied any such contact.
The government has cut internet service since the day after the election to prevent speculation on social media about who won, and blocked some radio stations.
The United States, African Union, European Union and others have urged Congo's government to make sure the election results conform to the will of the people. Western pressure likely has little effect, however, as Congo's government has rejected what it calls interference and expelled the EU ambassador days before the vote. Western election observers were not invited.
Many have seen this election as Congo's first chance at a democratic, peaceful transfer of power since independence in 1960. But one Congolese election observer group, Symocel, on Tuesday reported "major irregularities" including the disappearance of envelopes containing results from nearly 120 polling stations in Kinshasa, an opposition stronghold.
Congo's powerful Catholic Church has said it found a clear winner from data compiled by its 40,000 observers deployed to all polling stations. Voting regulations prohibit anyone but the electoral commission from announcing results. The church has urged the commission to announce accurate ones.
Congo's ruling party responded angrily, calling the church's announcement "anarchist," and the electoral commission accused the church of "preparing an uprising." The church replied by saying that only the release of false results would incite an uprising.
Electoral commission president Corneille Nangaa has said authorities were aware that "this process has always been surrounded by distrust."
He blamed the delay on opposition parties' insistence that results be counted by hand and not transmitted electronically via voting machines, which Congo used for the first time. The machines were the focus of much concern, with the opposition and observers saying they could open the door to manipulating results.
Tehran, Jan 9 (AP/UNB)— Iran's supreme leader on Wednesday called U.S. officials "first-class idiots," mocking American leaders as U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo toured the Mideast to promote the White House's tough stance on Iran.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's comments were unusually harsh, reflecting the broader tension between Iran and the United States after President Donald Trump withdrew America from Tehran's nuclear deal with world powers.
Khamenei, speaking to a group from Iran's religious capital of Qom, made the remark while recounting a story about a U.S. official once predicting he'd celebrate Christmas in Iran.
"Some U.S. officials pretend that they are mad," Khamenei said. "Of course I don't agree with that, but they are first-class idiots."
The supreme leader did not name the official. However, U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton told a meeting of the Iranian exile group Mujahedeen-e-Khalq last March that "before 2019, we here ... will celebrate in Iran." Trump's personal lawyer, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, has made similar comments before the MEK over the years.
Iran's supreme leader, viewed by Shiite hard-liners as second only to God, typically doesn't make such forceful remarks. However, Trump's decision last year to withdraw from the nuclear deal has seen the 79-year-old cleric grow increasingly critical.
In 2017, Khamenei dismissed remarks by Trump calling Iran a "terrorist" nation as "idiotic." Last May, after Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal which saw Iran limit its uranium enrichment in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions, Khamenei told Trump in a speech: "You cannot do a damn thing!"
"The body of this man, Trump, will turn to ashes and become the food of the worms and ants, while the Islamic Republic continues to stand," Khamenei said at the time.
Khamenei's comments Wednesday came as Pompeo visited Iraq. On Tuesday, the U.S. top diplomat threatened that America would double down on commercial and diplomatic efforts in the coming weeks to "put real pressure on Iran."
Khamenei's remarks to Qom residents were meant to mark the anniversary of religious riots in 1978 that challenged Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. They would spiral into the nationwide demonstration that saw the shah leave Iran and give rise to the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Iranians will commemorate the revolution's 40th anniversary in February.
Jerusalem, Jan 9 (AP/UNB) — A former Israeli government minister charged with spying for archenemy Iran will serve 11 years in prison as part of a plea bargain with authorities, Israel's justice ministry said Wednesday.
The ministry said Gonen Segev agreed to the deal after confessing to severe espionage and passing information to an enemy. The plea bargain will be brought to a judge next month and no further information was provided.
The announcement capped another stunning turn of events for Segev, who served as energy minister under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in the mid-1990s and was later imprisoned for trying to smuggle drugs into the country.
Segev was extradited from Equatorial Guinea and arrested upon arrival in Israel last May on suspicion of acting as an agent for Iranian intelligence and relayed information about the "energy market and security sites in Israel."
Israel's Shin Bet security service initially said Segev met with his operators twice in Iran, and also met with Iranian agents in hotels and apartments around the world. A gag order was placed on most of the details.
The allegations were particularly grave since Israel and Iran are bitter enemies. Israel considers Iran to be its biggest threat, citing Iranian calls for Israel's destruction, Iran's support for hostile militant groups like Hezbollah and its development of long-range missiles. Israel has been an outspoken critic of the international nuclear deal with Iran and welcomed the U.S. decision to withdraw from the deal. More recently, Israeli forces have carried out a number of airstrikes on Iranian forces in neighboring Syria.
In August, Iran's intelligence minister boasted on state television about his country's successful recruitment of a former Cabinet-level official from a "hostile" country, though he did not mention Israel or Segev by name.
Segev's lawyers, Eli Zohar and Moshe Mazor, said they were still prohibited from discussing the full details of the case but that the plea bargain removed the initial charge of treason and brought the affair back to its proper proportions.
"Indeed, Mr. Segev did have contact with the Iranians but his motive was not to 'aid an enemy during war,'" they said in a statement Wednesday.
Segev was previously arrested in 2004 for attempting to smuggle 32,000 illegal Ecstasy tablets from the Netherlands to Israel using an expired diplomatic passport, and served prison time for that. A former doctor whose medical license was revoked, Segev was released from prison in Israel in 2007 and had been living in Africa in recent years.