Pentagon Denies Intentionally Misleading Public on Afghan War

The Pentagon has denied intentionally misleading the public about the 18-year war in Afghanistan, after The Washington Post published a trove of government documents revealing that officials made overly optimistic pronouncements they knew to be false and hid evidence that the conflict had become un-winnable. 

“There has been no intent by DoD to mislead Congress or the public,” Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Thomas Campbell wrote to VOA on Monday. 

“The information contained in the interviews was provided to SIGAR (Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction) for the express purpose of inclusion in SIGAR’s public reports,” he added.

The Post said the documents contain more than 400 interviews with senior military and government insiders who offered unrestrained criticism of what went wrong in Afghanistan and how the United States became mired in nearly two decades of war.

According to the Post, U.S. officials, most of whom spoke on the assumption that their remarks would not be made public, acknowledged that the strategies for fighting the war were flawed and that the U.S. wasted hundreds of billions of dollars trying to make Afghanistan into a stable, democratic nation. 

“If the American people knew the magnitude of this dysfunction,” Douglas Lute, a three-star Army general who served as the White House’s Afghan war czar during the Bush and Obama administrations, said in 2015, according to the documents. “We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.”

The Post said the interviews also highlight botched U.S. attempts to reduce corruption, build a competent Afghan army and reduce the country’s opium trade.

U.S. presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump all vowed to avoid becoming mired in “nation-building” in Afghanistan. However, the report shows how even from the early days of the war, senior officials in charge of directing U.S. policy in the country expressed confusion about Washington’s basic objectives and strategy for achieving them.

The Post said the interviews “contradict a long chorus of public statements” that assured the U.S. was “making progress in Afghanistan.”

Outgoing Command Sgt. Maj. John Troxell, who serves as the senior enlisted adviser to the top U.S. military officer, told reporters on Monday that he “firmly thought the strategy we had in place was working.”  

“I feel that we’ve never been lied to, and we are continuing to move forward (in Afghanistan),” Troxell added.

The Afghan war is estimated to have killed more than 150,000 people, including civilians, insurgents, local and foreign troops, since the U.S. and its allies invaded 18 years ago to oust the Taliban from power for sheltering al-Qaida leaders accused of plotting the Sept. 11 terrorist strikes on the U.S.

The conflict has claimed the lives of more than 2,400 U.S. service members and cost Washington nearly $1 trillion.

The Post waged a legal battle for three years to force the government to disclose the information because of its importance to the public.

The U.S. and the Afghan Taliban restarted peace negotiations on Saturday, three months after Trump abruptly stopped the yearlong process aimed at finding a political settlement with the insurgent group and ending the war in Afghanistan.

Afghan-born U.S. special reconciliation representative, Zalmay Khalilzad, led his team at a meeting Saturday in Doha, Qatar, where insurgent negotiators are based.

The draft agreement the U.S.-Taliban negotiations had produced before Trump called off the process on Sept. 7 would have set the stage for a phased withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan.

The Taliban, in return, had given counterterrorism guarantees and promised to engage in intra-Afghan peace negotiations to permanently end decades of hostilities in the country.


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Experts: N. Korea Tested an Engine, Possibly for a Long-Range Missile

Experts say North Korea appeared to have conducted a fuel engine test on the ground, potentially for a long-range missile, in what Pyongyang claimed as “the test of great significance.”

Michael Elleman, director of the Non-Proliferation and Nuclear Policy Program at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), said it is safe to assume North Korea conducted “a static engine test” but cannot conclude the type of engine tested based on currently available information.

A static engine test means the engine was tested on the ground with a missile component but without launching an actual missile into the air.

“The size of the engine, whether it was based on liquid or solid fuel, or the success of the test are impossible to know without more evidence, photographs,” said Elleman.  He added that it is also difficult to determine if the engine tested was “a new type or a test of an existing model.”

North Korea said “a very important test took place at the Sohae Satellite Launching Ground” on Saturday afternoon, according to a statement issued on Sunday by the country’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). 

“The results of the recent important test will have an important effect on changing the strategic position of the DPRK once again in the near future,” said a spokesperson for the Academy of the National Defense Science of North Korea.  The DPRK stands for Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, North Korea’s official English name.

Pyongyang did not give further details about the weapon it tested.

People watch a TV screen showing a file image of the North Korean long-range rocket at a launch pad during a news program at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Monday, Dec. 9, 2019.

Choi Hyun-soo, a spokesperson for South Korean Defense Ministry, on Monday said, “We are aware of North Korea’s announcement” without making a public assessment of the test.

The spokesperson said Seoul is continuing to work closely with Washington to monitor activities around major test sites in North Korea including Dongchang-ri, the site of the Sohae facility.

Bruce Bechtol, a former intelligence officer at the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency and now a professor of political science at Angelo State University in Texas, said it is difficult to determine what kind of engine North Korea tested because it broke with recent practice and did not release any photos of the test.

Bechtol said the U.S. and South Korea governments may have images of the test. However, they have remained silent on the kind of weapons North Korea tested, he added.

Ian Williams, deputy director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), expressed concern that the type of engine North Korea tested is “a larger solid fuel rocket engine” for a long-range missile.

He said the next technology North Korea is probably looking to test is a long-range missile using a solid fuel engine because it had already tested a liquid fuel engine for an inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM).  He said all the short-range missiles North Korea tested this year are propelled by solid fuel engines.

“A big advance to them would be if they could get their longer-range missiles, move them into the use of solid fuel, which makes them much more operationally useful,” said Williams. 

Missiles using solid fuel engines are harder to detect because it takes shorter time to prepare than missiles using liquid fuel engines. Two years ago, physicist David Wright wrote that North Korea’s ICBMs are capable of reaching the continental U.S.

Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at the Rand Corporation, said although it is hard to determine what kind of rocket engine North Korea tested and whether the engine is for solid or liquid fuel, “the test stand that was used [to place an engine for the test] was apparently designed for testing ICBM engines.”

Bennett said, however, the test “does not prove that the North Koreans are building their own ICBM engines, but they certainly want to imply that is the case.”

A man watches a TV screen showing a file image of the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at his county long-range rocket launch site during a news program at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Monday, Dec. 9, 2019.

 

He added, “If the engine [North Korea] tested this weekend really was of an ICBM engine, and the test succeeded, then North Korea would pose a more serious threat to the United States in the future. And that would change the North Korean strategic position.”

Days ahead of the test, activities were detected at Sohae Satellite Launching Station, according to satellite imagery captured by Planet Lab on Thursday, which was reported by CNN.

North Korea has reportedly rebuilt the launch site after dismantling it partially when denuclearization talks with the U.S. began last year.

The talks remain stalled without much progress made since the Singapore Summit held in June 2018 due to their differences.  Washington has been demanding Pyongyang take full denuclearization while Pyongyang wants Washington to relax sanctions first.  The two have remained locked in their position since the Hanoi Summit held in February.

The most recent test came as North Korean ambassador to the United Nations said on Saturday that denuclearization is off the table in talks that he described as a “time-saving trick” to benefit a “domestic political agenda” of the U.S.

Prospects for any talks with North Korea seem to be diminishing further as Pyongyang returned belittling U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday.

Calling Trump “a heedless and erratic old man,” former North Korean nuclear negotiator Kim Yong-chol said, “We have nothing more to lose.”  He continued, “The time when we cannot but call him a ‘dotard’ again may come” through a statement released by the KCNA

Pyongyang called Trump a “dotard” when it exchanged threats and insults with Washington in 2017 while testing missiles. Trump resorted to calling Kim a “rocket man,” an expression he used in reference to Kim in 2017.

In a separate statement issued by the KCNA on Monday, Ri Su-yong, vice-chairman of the Central Committee of North Korea ruling Workers’ Party, said, “Trump might be in great jitter, but he had better accept the status quo that as he sowed, so he should reap, and think twice if he does not want to see bigger catastrophic consequences.” 

Pyongyang’s two statements follow Trump’s Sunday Twitter message.  Trump said Kim “has far too much to lose, everything actually, if he acts in a hostile way” in response to North Korea’s test.

Kim Jong Un is too smart and has far too much to lose, everything actually, if he acts in a hostile way. He signed a strong Denuclearization Agreement with me in Singapore. He does not want to void his special relationship with the President of the United States or interfere…. https://t.co/THfOjfB2uE

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 8, 2019

Trump warned Kim not to jeopardize the “special relationship” with him or “interfere with the U.S. Presidential Election in November.

On Monday, a State Department official said the U.S. plans to ask the United Nations Security Council to discuss North Korean provocations including the test on Saturday during its meeting this week. 


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UN Calls for Truce Around Next Year’s Tokyo Summer Olympics

The U.N. General Assembly unanimously approved a resolution Monday urging all nations to observe a truce during the 2020 Summer Olympics in Japan, saying sports can play a role in promoting peace and tolerance and preventing and countering terrorism and violent extremism.

Diplomats burst into applause as the assembly president announced the adoption of the resolution by the 193-member world body.

The resolution recalls the ancient Greek tradition of “ekecheiria,” which called for a cessation of hostilities to encourage a peaceful environment, ensure safe passage and participation of athletes in the ancient Olympics.

The General Assembly revived the tradition in 1993 and has adopted resolutions before all Olympics since then calling for a cessation of hostilities for seven days before and after the games. But member states involved in conflicts have often ignored the call for a truce.

Yoshiro Mori, head of the Tokyo organizing committee for the 2020 games, introduced the resolution calling on U.N. members states to observe the truce around next year’s Summer Olympics, being held July 24-Aug. 9, and the Paralympics, following on Aug. 25-Sept. 6.

The resolution also urges nations to help “use sport as a tool to promote peace, dialogue and reconciliation in areas of conflict during and beyond” the games.

Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, told the General Assembly that as the United Nations approaches its 75th anniversary next year, an Olympic year, there is no better time to celebrate the shared values of both organizations to promote peace among all countries and people of the world.

But he warned that “in sport, we can see an increasing erosion of the respect for the global rule of law.”

Bach said the IOC’s political neutrality is undermined whenever organizations or individuals attempt to use the Olympic Games as a stage for their own agendas - as legitimate as they might be. The Olympicsare a sports celebration of our shared humanity … and must never be a platform to advance political or any other potentially divisive ends,” he said.

Looking ahead, Bach announced that “we will achieve gender balance at the Olympic Games for the first time in Tokyo, with the highest-ever number of female athletes in history at about 49%.”

He said Tokyo 2020 also aims “for carbon-neutral games,” saying medals will be made from recycled electronics and renewable energy and zero-emission vehicles will be used.

The resolution notes that the Tokyo event will be the second of three Olympics in Asia, following the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, and ahead of the 2022 winter games in Beijing.

It also notes that the Summer Olympics will give Japan the opportunity to express gratitude to countries and people around the world for their “solidarity and support” after the 2011 earthquake and “to deliver a powerful message to the world on how it has been recovering.”


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2020 Newcomer Bloomberg Stepping onto International Stage

New York billionaire Michael Bloomberg launched his campaign less than three weeks ago, but he is already making his first foreign trip as a presidential candidate.

The Democrat will appear Tuesday at a United Nations global climate conference in Madrid, where he’ll share the results of his private push to organize thousands of U.S. cities and businesses to abide by the terms of a global climate treaty that the Trump administration is working to abandon. The appearance comes as Bloomberg, a former Republican whose dedication to the environment earned him the designation of special U.N. envoy for climate action, tries to find his footing in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary election.

It’s rare for a presidential candidate to step onto the international stage before securing the nomination, and virtually unheard of for a candidate to do so in the first month of his or her candidacy.

Earlier this year, Bernie Sanders appeared in Canada to highlight his fight to lower prescription drug costs, while former candidate Beto O’Rourke met with asylum seekers in Mexico. Both men represented states that bordered those countries, however, and there were no formal talks with foreign leaders involved.

Bloomberg shared his plan to appear at the global climate conference on social media on Monday.

“I’m going to the climate summit in Madrid because President Trump won’t,” he said, adding that he plans to “meet with environmental leaders from around the world about next steps on tackling the climate crisis.”

Bloomberg also vowed in a statement to rejoin the Paris climate agreement in his first official act as president.

Campaign aide Brynne Craig said climate would be “a central issue” for Bloomberg this week and throughout his presidential run.

She said the issue “is near and dear to his heart” and “a front-of-mind issue for Democratic voters.”

The 77-year-old billionaire has used his wealth to make an impact in the global fight against climate change and in his 2020 presidential campaign. He is largest donor in the history of the Sierra Club, and he has spent more than $60 million in the first two weeks of his campaign on television ads now running in all 50 states.

Many progressives remain resistant to his candidacy.

“How many self-declared climate champion billionaires does the race need? The answer is none,” said Mitch Jones, climate and energy program director for the group Food & Water Watch, which has been critical of Bloomberg’s pragmatic approach to fighting climate change. “This is just Bloomberg trying to insert himself into international climate negotiations to bolster his campaign.”

Bloomberg’s presidential campaign released a new online video ad contrasting his message on climate change with that of Trump, who served formal notice last month that the U.S. intends to become the first country to withdraw from the Paris accord.

“It’s getting hotter. But while fire and smoke choke our air, Donald Trump is making it worse,” Bloomberg’s new ad says, describing Trump as a “climate change denier” and Bloomberg as a “climate change champion.”

AP VoteCast, a nationwide survey of the American electorate, found that 92% of people who voted for Democrats in the 2018 midterms said they were at least somewhat concerned about climate change. Seventy percent said they were very concerned.

 


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Australians Flee as Soaring Temperature, Winds Threaten to Fan Fires

Residents in parts of eastern Australia evacuated their homes on Tuesday as soaring temperatures and strong winds threatened to fan bushfires in a giant blaze north of Sydney, the country’s biggest city.

Air quality in parts of Sydney plunged as the city awoke to another thick blanket of smoke, disrupting transport services and prompting health warnings from authorities.

More than 100 fires are ablaze in New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria states in eastern Australia, many of which have been burning since November. The fires have killed at least four people, destroyed more than 680 homes and burned more than 2.5 million acres (1 million hectares) of bushland.

After a brief respite over the weekend, conditions are set to worsen on Tuesday as temperatures top 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) and winds pick up, stoking fears that fires could spread to more populated areas.

Such forecasts have heightened worries about a so-called megablaze burning north of Sydney.

Stretching for more than 60 km (37.2 miles), the firefront in the Hawkesbury region, about 50 km north west of Sydney, could grow if the forecasted winds arrive, authorities have warned.

While there is no official evacuation order, many locals have decided to leave their homes, Hawkesbury Mayor Barry Calvert told Reuters.

“It is eerie, many people have decided to leave, and I’m going to do the same,” said Calvert.

“I’ve been through this before about 20 years ago when I stood outside my house looking at flames 50 feet high, I decided then that I would leave early if it happened again.”

Rural Fire Service (RFS) volunteers and NSW Fire and Rescue officers fight a bushfire encroaching on properties near Termeil, Australia, Dec. 3, 2019.
Rural Fire Service (RFS) volunteers and NSW Fire and Rescue officers fight a bushfire encroaching on properties near Termeil, Australia, Dec. 3, 2019.

While conditions are not expected to reach the higher “catastrophic fire danger” hit last month, authorities said the recent hot, dry weather has increased the expanse of potential fireground.

“There are some that are much closer and with greater potential to impact on more densely populated or highly populated areas,” said NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons.

Keen to reassure locals, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said there were 111 aircraft ready to join firefighting efforts if needed.

Bushfires are common in Australia’s hot, dry summers, but the ferocity and early arrival of the fires in the southern spring is unprecedented. Experts have said climate change has left bushland tinder-dry.

The wildfires have blanketed Sydney – home to more than 5 million people – in smoke and ash for more than two weeks, turning the daytime sky orange, obscuring visibility and prompting commuters to wear breathing masks.

Sydney’s air quality index readings in some parts of the city on Tuesday were 11 times the recommended safe levels, government data showed.

The thick haze forced widespread transport disruptions, with ferries suspended and trains experiencing lengthy delays.

“Remain inside with the windows and doors closed, preferably in an air-conditioned building,” the NSW state government’s health department said.

 


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4 Rockets Hit Military Base Near Baghdad Airport

Four Katyusha rockets hit a military base near Baghdad International Airport early on Monday, wounding at least six soldiers, Iraqi security officials said. It was the latest incident in a series of rocket attacks in recent weeks.
                   
Iraqi security forces discovered a rocket launcher and some defused rockets nearby after searching the area following the the attack, a statement from Iraqi security forces said.
                   
According to the security officials, the area targeted by the rockets is frequented by military advisers from the U.S.-led coalition. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
                   
No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack.
                   
Last Tuesday, five rockets landed inside the Ain al-Asad airbase, a sprawling complex in the western Anbar desert that hosts U.S. forces, without causing any casualties and little damage.
                   
On at least two occasions last month in Baghdad, rockets landed in areas around the heavily fortified Green Zone, the seat of Iraq’s government, causing no casualties or damages.
                   
And near the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, a barrage of Katyusha rockets targeted an Iraqi air base that houses American troops in early November. No members of the U.S.-led coalition were hurt.
                   
Some hard-line Iraqi militias loyal to Iran have recently threatened to carry out attacks against Americans in the country. The U.S. maintains about 5,000 troops in Iraq.
                   
American forces withdrew from Iraq in 2011 but returned in 2014 at the invitation of the government to help battle the Islamic State group after it seized vast areas in the north and west of the country, including Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. The U.S.-led coalition provided crucial air support as Iraqi forces regrouped and drove IS out in a costly three-year campaign.

 


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Amid Trump Impeachment Fury, US and Russia Expected to Talk Arms Control

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov heads to Washington for hastily scheduled meetings with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and, possibly, President Donald Trump, on Tuesday.

While a Russian Foreign Ministry statement said the mission’s purpose would be to discuss “important issues” in U.S.-Russian relations, White House officials are signaling arms control will top the agenda, along with discussions aimed at bridging differences between Washington and Moscow over Syria and Ukraine.   

The idea for the talks appears to have been jumpstarted by Russian President Vladimir Putin last week, when the Russian leader said Moscow was eager to extend the New START nuclear arms control treaty by the end of this year “without any preconditions.”

“Russia is not interested in starting an arms race and deploying missiles where they are not present now,” said Putin in an addressing the nuclear treaty — which expires in 2021 — during a meeting with officials in Moscow.  

Washington seems to have gotten the message.

President Donald Trump speaks as he meets with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte (not pictured) during the NATO summit at The Grove, in Watford, England. Dec. 4, 2019.

At the recent NATO summit in London, President Donald Trump noted his awareness of Moscow’s desire to “do a deal” on arms control without providing details. Mr. Trump also suggested that U.S. and Russia negotiations eventually include China, a rising nuclear power not party to Cold War nuclear agreements.  

“We’ll also certainly bring in … China. We may bring them in later, or we may bring them in now,” said the President.

Indeed, White House officials said Lavrov’s visit could include a meeting with the President — to reciprocate a courtesy extended by President Putin to Secretary Pompeo during his last visit to Moscow, says White House National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien.

“When [Secretary Mike] Pompeo has gone to Russia, [Vladimir] Putin’s seen him. And one of the things that we’ve said with the- with the Chinese and the Russians is- and others, is we want reciprocity,” said O’Brien in comments to CBS News’ “Face the Nation” television program.

 

“And so Putin’s met with … Pompeo. I think as a matter of reciprocity, that’s something we’re looking at. But we’re also looking at some other things. And we’ll see if we can get there,” O’Brien added.

For now, the State Department is confirming a “working lunch” between the two top diplomats, as well as press conference to follow.

Eye of impeachment storm

Mr. Lavrov goes to a Washington rifled by bitter partisan infighting over the ongoing impeachment inquiry against President Trump — set to pick up again this week as Democrats draft proposed articles of impeachment.

FILE – President Donald Trump meets with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy at the InterContinental Barclay New York hotel during the United Nations General Assembly, Sept. 25, 2019, in New York.

Impeachment hearings have thus far focused on Ukraine, where President Trump is accused of holding up hundreds of millions of dollars in congressionally approved aid to Kyiv in order to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy into launching an investigation into Trump’s potential Democratic rival in the 2020 U.S. presidential elections.

Yet Democratic lawmakers and former White House staffers argue Republicans’ defense of the President parrots conspiracy theories pushed by Russian intelligence services: that Ukraine, not Russia, was behind a foreign interference campaign in the 2016 presidential elections.   

Meanwhile, some congressional Democrats have also argued that the scope of the impeachment trial should include allegations of obstruction of justice by President Trump as detailed in a two-year Special Counsel investigation into Russian interference by special prosecutor Robert Mueller.

The result of that investigation —  the so-called Mueller Report — was released earlier this year and did not find evidence of a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia to influence the elections.
 

Yet the report also left it to Congress to determine whether President Trump had obstructed justice during the course of an investigation that saw several members of his campaign staff sentenced to jail.  

The report also agreed with U.S. security agencies that Russia unequivocally sought to influence the outcome of the 2016 race  — charges both the Kremlin and President Trump deny.

Further muddying the picture is the release of a highly anticipated report by the inspector general, Michael E. Horowitz, reexamining aspects of Mueller’s Russia investigation. The report is expected to address the thus far unsubstantiated claims by Trump that the FBI illegally targeted his campaign in the Russia probe.


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N. Korea Calls US President ‘Heedless and Erratic Old Man’

North Korea addressed new insults to U.S. President Donald Trump Monday, calling him a “heedless and erratic old man.”

Pyongyang was responding to a Trump tweet saying that “Kim Jong Un is too smart and has far too much to lose, everything actually, if he acts in a hostile way.” Trump added that Kim “does not want to void his special relationship with the President of the United States or interfere with the U.S. Presidential Election in November.”

Former North Korean nuclear negotiator Kim Yong Chol, said in a statement that his country has “nothing more to lose” even though “the U.S. may take away anything more from us, it can never remove the strong sense of self-respect, might and resentment against the U.S. from us.”

Kim Yong Chol said Trump’s tweets clearly show that he is “bereft of patience” and the time may come “when we cannot but call him a ‘dotard’ again.”

He leveled accusations that the Trump administration is attempting to buy time ahead of an end-of-year deadline set by Kim Jong Un for Washington “to salvage the nuclear talks.”

Trump on Sunday warned North Korean leader Kim Jong Un against hostile military actions, even as Pyongyang announced it had conducted “a very important test” at a satellite launching site.

“He signed a strong Denuclearization Agreement with me in Singapore,” the U.S. leader said. “He does not want to void his special relationship with the President of the United States or interfere with the U.S. Presidential Election in November. North Korea, under the leadership of Kim Jong Un, has tremendous economic potential, but it must denuclearize as promised. NATO, China, Russia, Japan, and the entire world is unified on this issue!” 

….with the U.S. Presidential Election in November. North Korea, under the leadership of Kim Jong Un, has tremendous economic potential, but it must denuclearize as promised. NATO, China, Russia, Japan, and the entire world is unified on this issue!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 8, 2019

Trump’s remarks came after North Korea’s state media said the test was conducted Saturday at the Sohae Satellite Launching Station 7, a long-range rocket launching site station in Tongch’ang-ri, a part of North Pyongan Province located near the border of China.

The government-run Korean Central News Agency said the results “will have an important effect on changing the strategic position of the DPRK once again in the near future,” it added, using an acronym for North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. But the report did not say what kind of test was performed at the site.

FILE – In this March 6, 2019 file photo, a man watches a TV screen showing an image of the Sohae Satellite Launching Station in Tongchang-ri, North Korea, during a news program at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea.

The North Korean announcement came a day after CNN reported that Planet Labs, a commercial satellite imagery company, had detected activity at the Sohae Satellite Launching Station, including the image of a large shipping container.

This year has been one of North Korea’s busiest in terms of missile launches. Saturday’s test comes as North Korea continues to emphasize its declared end-of-year deadline for the United States to change its approach to stalled nuclear talks.

Pyongyang has carried out 13 rounds of short- or medium-range launches since May. Most experts say nearly all of the tests have involved some form of ballistic missile technology.

Earlier this month, Trump, in answering reporters’ questions about North Korea at the NATO summit in London, said, “Now we have the most powerful military we’ve ever had and we’re by far the most powerful country in the world. And, hopefully, we don’t have to use it, but if we do, we’ll use it. If we have to, we’ll do it.”

North Korea responded in kind. “Anyone can guess with what action the DPRK will answer if the U.S. undertakes military actions against the DPRK,” Pak Jong Chon, head of the Korean People’s Army, said on state media. “One thing I would like to make clear is that the use of armed forces is not the privilege of the U.S. only.”

North Korea last tested an intercontinental ballistic missile in November 2017 and conducted a nuclear test in September 2017.

In April 2018, Kim announced a self-imposed moratorium on ICBM and nuclear tests, saying North Korea “no longer need(s)” those tests. Recently, however, North Korean officials have issued reminders that North Korea’s pause on ICBM and nuclear tests was self-imposed and can be reversed.

 


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Russia Banned From Olympics, Major Events For 4 Years Over Doping

The World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) executive committee has sent a “robust” rebuke of Russia’s sports authorities, banning the country’s athletes and officials from the Olympics and world championships in a range of sports for four years.

The committee made the move “unanimously” on Monday after WADA concluded that Moscow had tampered with laboratory data by planting fake evidence and deleting files linked to positive doping tests that could have helped identify drug cheats.

“For too long, Russian doping has detracted from clean sport. The blatant breach by the Russian authorities of RUSADA’s reinstatement conditions … demanded a robust response. That is exactly what has been delivered today,” WADA President Sir Craig Reedie said in a statement.

“Russia was afforded every opportunity to get its house in order and rejoin the global anti-doping community for the good of its athletes and of the integrity of sport, but it chose instead to continue in its stance of deception and denial,” he added.

“As a result, the WADA [executive committee] has responded in the strongest possible terms, while protecting the rights of Russian athletes that can prove that they were not involved and did not benefit from these fraudulent acts.”

The Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA) has 21 days to officially appeal the ruling with the Swiss-based Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Several Russian lawmakers immediately decried the move and said it should be appealed.

Aleksandr Ivlev, head of RUSADA’s supervisory board, said the body would meet in the next 10 days to decide on further steps that may be taken.

It is expected that WADA’s official notice will be sent to RUSADA alleging noncompliance with the World Anti-Doping Code for failing to provide an “authentic” copy of Moscow anti-doping laboratory data.

WADA’s decision was based on the recommendations of the agency’s Compliance Review Committee (CRC), which had alleged that this data was manipulated before being handed over to investigators, as required under conditions for reinstating RUSADA’s compliance with the code in September 2018.

As a signatory of the World Anti-Doping Code, the International Olympic Committee is bound to honor the decision.

Falsified data

Doping allegations have plagued the country since the revelation of large-scale, state-sponsored doping aimed at improving its medal performance at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia’s Black Sea resort of Sochi.

In September 2018, WADA lifted the suspension of the Russian anti-doping agency RUSADA that had been in place for three years on condition that Russia hand over doping data and samples from 2012 to 2015.

But the CRC on November 25 accused Russia of falsifying some of the data provided by a Moscow laboratory in January, and proposed imposing a four-year ban on RUSADA and excluding the country from major sporting competitions.

Sofya Velikaya, a 2016 fencing gold medalist and executive committee member of the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC), has said she will leave her post ahead of the decision.

“I informed the summit participants about the situation in which we find ourselves based on the recommendations of ROC’s sports committee members, and foremost, its chairman,” Velikaya said, as cited by ROC press-service head Stanislav Pozdnyakov.

However, RUSADA chief Yury Ganus has called the proposed punishments “justified.”


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Taliban Bomber Kills 9 Afghan Soldiers in Helmand

A Taliban suicide bomber Monday detonated his explosives-laden vehicle near a military base in southern Afghanistan, killing at least nine soldiers and injuring several others.

Officials said the insurgent bombing occurred near the center of Nad Ali district in Helmand province, where most of the territory is controlled or contested by the Taliban. The blast reportedly destroyed the Afghan National Army (ANA) facility.

Rescue workers were trying to retrieve bodies from the rubles and the death toll could increase, Barali Nazari, the district chief, told VOA.

The Taliban took responsibility for the attack, claiming it killed dozens of security forces and destroyed several armored vehicles, though insurgent claims are often inflated.

Separately, a Taliban raid in the volatile eastern Ghazni province late on Sunday killed at least six ANA soldiers, the provincial police chief, Khalid Wardak, told VOA.

The violence comes as American and Taliban negotiators continued their meetings in Qatar Monday.  The two adversaries in the 18-year-old Afghan war returned to the negotiating table last week, three months after President Donald Trump had suspended the process.

U.S. chief negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad restarted the latest round of talks with a mission to persuade the Taliban to reduce violence and enter into intra-Afghan negotiations for permanently ending hostilities in Afghanistan.


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