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Trump's ties to Putin under fresh scrutiny in wake of Russia bounty reports

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* Russia allegedly paid bounties for deaths of US soldiers * Democrats ask: what did the president know – and when? * US politics – live coverageDonald Trump is facing renewed questions over his relationship with Vladimir Putin after reports that he was briefed in writing in February that Russia paid bounties for the deaths of US soldiers in Afghanistan.After a meeting at the White House on Tuesday, Democratic members of Congress insisted the president must at least have been aware of the allegation against Moscow, yet failed to act.“Based on what we heard today, it was information that a) the president should have known about and b) based on what we were told today, he did,” Adam Smith, chairman of the House armed services committee, told reporters.Classified US reports suggested a Russian military intelligence unit offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants to kill US and allied forces in Afghanistan, the New York Times reported last week.The April 2019 killing of three US marines after a car rigged with explosives detonated near their vehicles as they returned to Bagram airfield in Afghanistan is seen as one possible result of the programme, which the Kremlin has denied.The damning allegations have revived familiar questions from American political scandals: what did the president know and when did he know it?Trump has long faced scrutiny for his warm relationship with Putin, including a refusal to accept his own intelligence agencies’ conclusion that Moscow intervened on his behalf in the 2016 presidential election; calls for Russia to rejoin the Group of Seven (G7) leading industrial nations; and the dispatch of ventilators to Russia to combat the coronavirus pandemic.Trump and Putin spoke by phone six times between 30 March and 1 June – an unusually high number – apparently without the Afghanistan issue being mentioned.On Monday, the Times reported that information on the bounties was included in a daily written report delivered to the president in late February, with one unnamed official specifying 27 February – a date on which Trump hosted controversial celebrity supporters Diamond and Silk at the White House.Separately, the Associated Press said senior officials in the White House were aware in early 2019 of the intelligence, and the assessment was included in at least one of Trump’s written daily briefings at the time. John Bolton, then national security adviser, told colleagues at the time he briefed Trump on the intelligence assessment in March 2019, the AP added.Trump said on Sunday he was not told of the allegations because the information was not “credible”. The White House has claimed there was no consensus among intelligence agencies. The administration is yet to address whether Trump received a written report or if he read it.At Monday’s White House briefing, the press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, was asked if the information was contained in the president’s daily brief, a summary of high-level information and analysis on national security issues. She replied, carefully: “He was not personally briefed on the matter” and repeated on Tuesday that Trump “was never briefed”.White House officials briefed Democrats only after sharing information with Republicans on Monday.After Tuesday’s meeting, Adam Schiff, chairman of the House intelligence committee, told reporters: “As we look at these allegations, number one the president of the United States should not be inviting Russia into the G7 or G8. We should be considering what sanctions are appropriate to further deter Russia’s malign activities.”Schiff, who prosecuted the impeachment case against Trump over a quid pro quo with Ukraine, added: “There may be a reluctance to brief the president on things he doesn’t want to hear and that may be more true with respect to Putin and Putin’s Russia than with respect to any other subject matter. Many of us do not understand his affinity for that autocratic ruler who means our nation ill.”Schiff called on Trump to consider imposing new economic sanctions on Russia, as did former national security adviser, John Bolton, who has published a damning book on the president, which suggests Trump is not fit for office.Ruben Gallego, a member of the armed services committee, told MSNBC: “It is clear that this president has warped the information stream. Because of his love of Putin and Russia, it has made it more difficult, in my opinion, for briefers and people that inform the president of what is happening to keep him up to date on Russian activity, and that has caused a lot of problems.”Hillary Clinton tweeted of Trump: “Either he knew and chose to do nothing, or he didn’t know because he couldn’t be bothered to do his job.”The New York Times further reported on Tuesday that US intelligence picked up transfers of large sums from Russian military intelligence to Taliban-linked bank accounts.Trump’s handling of diplomatic relations took another hit on Monday when Carl Bernstein, a veteran journalist who reported on the Watergate scandal that brought down Richard Nixon, published a report online for CNN.“In hundreds of highly classified phone calls with foreign heads of state,” Bernstein wrote, citing as sources unnamed White House and intelligence officials, Trump “was so consistently unprepared for discussion of serious issues, so often outplayed in his conversations with powerful leaders like Russian president Vladimir Putin and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and so abusive to leaders of America’s principal allies, that the calls helped convince some senior US officials … that the president himself posed a danger to the national security of the United States”.



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How Russia Built a Channel to the Taliban, Once an Enemy

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KABUL, Afghanistan — During one of the most violent stretches of fighting in northern Afghanistan, as the Taliban scored victories that had eluded them since the beginning of the conflict, the top U.S. commander went public with a suspicion that had nagged for years: Russia was aiding the insurgents.In diplomatic circles in Kabul around the time of that accusation, in 2017, there were murmurs that the Russian assistance had included night-vision goggles and armor-piercing ammunition.But Gen. John W. Nicholson, the commander, offered no definitive evidence, and that spoke to how confusing the battlefield had become as three longtime adversaries — the Taliban, Russia and Iran — agreed on their common interest in seeing the Americans leave Afghanistan. In the maze of corruption, cash and foreign hands in Afghanistan, it was no easy task to pin down who was doing what."We've had weapons brought to this headquarters and given to us by Afghan leaders and said, 'This was given by the Russians to the Taliban,'" Nicholson said a year later. "We know that the Russians are involved."The recent revelation of an American intelligence assessment that Russia had provided the Taliban with bounties to attack U.S. and coalition troops stunned political leaders in Washington and added a potent dose of Cold War-style skulduggery to deliberations over Afghanistan's future. Both Russia and the Taliban have rejected the assertion.But while that would be a notable escalation of Russian interference in Afghanistan, it was clear to many officials that Russia had been working to hedge its bets with the Taliban for years. The Russians saw the Afghan government as entirely controlled by the United States, and at worst so fragile that it would struggle to survive the U.S. withdrawal.In interviews, Afghan and U.S. officials and foreign diplomats with years of experience in Kabul say that what began as a diplomatic channel between Russia and the Taliban just under a decade ago has more recently blossomed into a mutually beneficial alliance that has allowed the Kremlin to reassert its influence in the region.The shift coincided with increasing hostility between the U.S. and Russia over Syria's civil war and other conflicts, analysts say, as well as Russia's frustration with rising instability in Afghanistan and the slow pace of the U.S. pullout.Now, the U.S. is conducting the troop withdrawal it agreed to with the Taliban even without a final peace deal between the insurgents and the Afghan government which the U.S. has supported for years. But Russia's covert efforts, officials and analysts say, are aimed at harassing and embarrassing the U.S. as the troops leave rather than profoundly changing the course of the conflict."It was in modest quantities; it was not designed to be a game changer on the battlefield," Nicholson, who has since retired from the military, told the House Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday about Russian arms and aid to the Taliban. "For example, the Taliban wanted surface-to-air missiles, the Russians didn't give it to them. So I always concluded that their support to the Taliban was calibrated in some sense."Some pointed out the considerably more extensive U.S. efforts to support the mujahedeen insurgency against the Soviet Union in the 1980s."We did the same," said Marc Polymeropoulos, a former CIA field officer in Afghanistan who retired last year as the agency's acting chief of operations in Europe and Eurasia. "We turned the heat up as the Russians were leaving Afghanistan.""Putin," he said, "is a student of history."As things began turning on the battlefield in recent years, officials described increasing suspicions of a greater Russian role in helping the Taliban. But they often struggled to pin down specifics, other than occasional influxes of new weapons and munitions that could have had several sources. In addition to Pakistan's well-established support to the Taliban, Iran was taking a greater hand in helping the insurgents, and often using similar channels as the Russians, Afghan intelligence officials say.The dots began connecting more clearly during a stretch of alarming violence in northern Afghanistan, when the Taliban twice overran Kunduz city, a provincial capital, in 2015 and 2016, sending the U.S. military scrambling.As Afghan intelligence narrowed in on the ambitious regional Taliban commander behind those assaults, they tracked his travel back and forth across the nearby border with Tajikistan, a Russian intelligence stronghold, according to current and former senior Afghan security officials. Kunduz is also the base of operations for two Afghan businessmen who U.S. intelligence officials say acted as middlemen in the bounty scheme between Russian intelligence officers and Taliban fighters.U.S. officials say they confronted Russia about its aid to the Taliban on several occasions, but their public claims lacked detail, and it never amounted to a major issue. Russian officials said they received no documented evidence.Three decades after the Soviet military withdrawal from Afghanistan, Russia's cultural, economic and personal ties in the country remain deep. When Russia has looked to exert influence, whether benign or otherwise, it has had a host of friends to call on: Soviet-trained generals who led the Afghan forces for years on American pay; businessmen who bragged of friendship with President Vladimir Putin of Russia; politicians who kept homes in Moscow even as they grew rich on U.S. contracts.For much of the first decade of the war, the U.S. did not really have to worry about the deep Russian reach into Afghan society, as Putin's government was aligned with the U.S. mission of defeating al-Qaida and Islamist groups that Moscow also saw as a threat — including the Taliban.Diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks show genuine attempts by both sides to coordinate efforts in Afghanistan. Russian officials spoke of a "collective fist" in the fight against terrorism, and urged unity "with one voice — the American voice."But as the war in Afghanistan dragged on, and the two powers took opposing sides in the crises in Syria and Ukraine, the Russians increasingly saw the U.S. mission as failed, and the American presence in the region as a threat.U.S. intelligence officials now date Russia's discreet outreach to the Taliban as beginning about eight years ago — around the time that Putin, after a four-year hiatus as prime minister, reassumed the presidency with a more confrontational posture with the West.The mistrust soon became intense enough that Russian officials accused the U.S. of playing a hand in the rise of an Islamic State group chapter in Afghanistan around 2015, with many of its earliest fighters being extremist militants from Central Asia who yearned to bring a holy war against Russia.At a meeting of the Russian Security Council in 2013, Putin said his country could no longer stand by in the face of failures by the U.S. and its partners."We need a clear action strategy, which will take into account different possible developments," Putin said at the meeting. "The task is to reliably protect the interests of Russia under any circumstances."Leading the portfolio on the diplomatic front was Zamir Kabulov, a veteran of the Soviet war in Afghanistan and reportedly a former Russian intelligence operative.Kabulov began publicly criticizing the U.S. for weaknesses in the Afghan government and for failing to rein in Islamist militancy there — and increasingly describing the Afghan Taliban as a national entity that posed no threat beyond the country's borders and could be worked with.Reports increased about Taliban figures making trips to Russia. And just as the U.S. and Taliban were finalizing details of the U.S. withdrawal, Russia brought the same Taliban leaders into Moscow meetings with a large number of Afghan political figures for discussions over the political future of the country.As the U.S. has drawn down its military presence, it has increasingly relied on Afghan partners for intelligence and counterintelligence. What Afghan security officials were seeing in recent years, particularly in the north, was a deeply messy reality.Around the time they began focusing more on Russian activities, the Afghans also unraveled an Iranian scheme of distributing arms to discontented warlords and militia commanders — the weapons were Russian, and the route was through Tajikistan, officials said. The Iranian scheme was short-lived, one senior Afghan official said, after Iran realized the weapons it was providing were turning up in the saturated black market.The Russians often used the hundreds of millions of dollars in fuel imports for NATO and Afghan forces as a way to inject cash into Afghanistan to ensure influence and keep intelligence assets on their side. One former senior Afghan official said that instead of direct cash transfers, the Russians would mostly arrange for the convoys of oil tankers snaking into Afghanistan to be topped with extra fuel that would be cached for circulation inside the country.Though the countries of Central Asia gained their independence after the Soviet collapse, Russia has never let go of its foothold in the region. In one cable, a Russian diplomat described the borders of countries like Tajikistan, where the Russian air force still has about 7,000 troops, as "an extension of its own border."When the Taliban were in power in Afghanistan in 1990s, Tajikistan was a hub for the resistance commanders who received aid from Russia and Iran. In the 20 years since the U.S. invasion, the country has become a center of criminal traffic and of vice, a kind of adult playground for many of the Afghan elite who frequently travel back and forth to Tajikistan and often have family there.In that mix of spies, money and mafia, the Taliban, too, found a foothold. The insurgents made a point of taking and maintaining control of some of the border crossings from Kunduz province into Tajikistan. From the south of the country all the way to the north, they had border access to evade military pressure, maintain ties with friendly foreigners and keep a channel for the opium trade that partly finances the insurgency.Several Afghan officials, including Asadullah Omarkhel, who was the governor of Kunduz at the time, said they shared with the Americans intelligence that Mullah Abdul Salam, the Taliban commander who led the assaults on Kunduz, repeatedly crossed into Tajikistan for what they suspected were discussions with Russian agents. A Tajik news outlet reported meetings between Russian officials and Taliban commanders at a Russian air base in Tajikistan as early as 2015. And it was these border crossings that the Taliban used to bring weapons in, officials say.Omarkhel said Americans initially were not confident about claims of Taliban ties to Russia, but then they started striking the Taliban bases along the border, including a strike that killed Salam.At Thursday's congressional hearing, Nicholson repeated his accusation of Russia arming the Taliban, noting that even though the aid was not extensive, it still had an effect."In the northern part of Afghanistan, in particular in Kunduz, the Russian assistance did help the Taliban inflict higher casualties on the Afghan security forces and more hardship on the Afghan people," he said.This article originally appeared in The New York Times.(C) 2020 The New York Times Company



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600,000 Hongkongers Voted in Unofficial Primary Election, Despite Warning It Could Violate Security Law

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More than half a million Hong Kong residents defied government warnings and a fresh coronavirus outbreak to vote in an unofficial primary, a strong turnout that signals continued resistance to Beijing’s decision to impose a broad national security law just two weeks ago.

More than 610,000 residents — representing more than 13% of registered voters — cast ballots in the two-day vote to narrow down the opposition candidates competing in elections for the city’s Legislative Council set for Sept. 6. The turnout, which was more than three times organizers’ expected tally, came despite government statements that the effort could violate provisions of the new security law.

The results were slated to be announced later Monday, giving the selected candidates time to officially register when the window opens later this month. Those selected must still overcome calls for disqualification by pro-Beijing politicians, with more moderate pro-democracy groups issuing a call Sunday for their supporters to challenge more radical “localist” candidates.

“People took this opportunity to make their voice heard,” Alvin Yeung, a pro-democracy lawmaker, told Bloomberg Television on Monday. “We’re talking about 600,000 people. It’s not a small number. And remember, this is not an election organized by the government. It’s organized by civil society. And so this is amazing.”

The opposition hopes to ride the momentum of a decisive victory in last November’s District Council elections to secure an unprecedented majority in the legislature. That would give it the power to block Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s agenda — and even theoretically force her to resign by rejecting her budget proposals. However, the new security law has compounded risks that the Beijing-backed government will disqualify pro-democracy candidates to keep them from winning enough seats.

“Hong Kong people just made a miracle by telling the world that more democratic candidates should join the elections,” said Au Nok Hin, one of the organizers. Voting on Saturday at the 250 stations across the city went relatively smoothly, despite some minor scuffles, Radio Television Hong Kong quoted Au as saying.

Secretary for Mainland and Constitutional Affairs Erick Tsang suggested Thursday that participation in the primary could run afoul of the law. If convicted by the courts, violators would be barred from seeking or holding public office for an unspecified period. Another top Hong Kong official last month advocated for the invalidation of candidates who expressed opposition toward the legislation, which has been criticized for undermining the city’s autonomy from China.

Tsang said that planning and participating in primaries could violate the law’s articles of secession, subversion and collusion, as well as its Elections (Corrupt and Illegal Conduct) Ordinance. But democrats rejected the government’s remarks, and the turnout suggests that authorities’ suggestions of illegality — and a warning that district council offices shouldn’t be used as primary polling stations — may have backfired.

Organizer Benny Tai said last week that the primary wasn’t an act of “secession” or “collusion” because it didn’t have an agenda to split the country and wasn’t sourcing funds externally.

The American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong found in a new survey that the majority of U.S. businesses operating in the city were worried about the law’s impact, with the potential for arbitrary application “frightening to many.”

‘More Legitimacy’

On Friday, police searched the offices of the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute and seized its computers, Au said Saturday. They had a warrant and didn’t make any arrests, he said. The institute is a widely cited pollster helping the pro-democracy movement with the primaries.

Voting for the primaries was delayed until noon on Saturday as a result of the raid, the organizers said. Police were seen visiting some of the polling stations. A police spokeswoman said officers from the cybersecurity crime bureau conducted the search after receiving complaints from members of the public about leaked information.

Hong Kong, which is seeing a spike in locally transmitted coronavirus cases, has also reimposed social-distancing restrictions that went effect Saturday and could have dissuaded some residents from coming out to vote. The city reported 30 new local virus cases on Sunday.

Pan-democrat organizers held media briefings in the past week to bolster public support and appeal for funds to cover expenses, but as of Friday had achieved only half their month-long crowd-funding goal of HK$3.5 million ($450,000). Candidates — including prominent activist Joshua Wong — had set up street booths in their respective districts in a last-ditch effort to secure votes ahead of the primary.

The government has blocked nine candidates from running because of their support for Hong Kong independence and self-determination since 2016, when it first took the then-unprecedented step of banning politicians from running for Legco due to their political views.

“Authorities want to use the rule of fear to suppress any different views and exactly how we can counteract the rule of fear is by doing the things we believe to be right,” Tai said. “The more people coming out to vote, it will give more legitimacy to the whole process.”

–With assistance from Stanley James, Julia Fioretti, Venus Feng, Matthew G. Miller and Karen Leigh.





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Michael Gove rules out compulsory masks in shops – but Downing Street says policy could still change

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Face masks should not be made mandatory in shops, Michael Gove has said, despite Downing Street’s insistence the policy is still under review and could be introduced. Mr Gove warned against introducing a “binary divide” by making masks obligatory in public, stressing that face masks are “significantly less important outdoors…than indoors”. People should be allowed to use their own judgement to decide whether a mask is appropriate in different situations, he said, warning that some people could think they are invincible while wearing a mask. “I think people are intelligent, I think people can understand that this is a novel virus with specific challenges,” he told Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme. “I think it’s quite right to treat people with the respect that their intelligence and judgment deserves.” “It mustn’t be the case that anyone thinks that wearing a face mask would make you invulnerable.” Mr Gove said the masks should be worn out of consideration for others, even if they are not made mandatory. But Downing Street said the option to make masks compulsory was still on the table, suggesting the Prime Minister may think it will soon become necessary to force people to wear them. The risk of transmission of the virus indoors is reduced between people who are wearing face coverings, evidence suggests. “It is something which is under review and if the decision to make it mandatory is taken that will be announced in due course,” a No10 source said. Speaking in a Facebook video on Friday, Boris Johnson suggested the Government had plans to increase the proportion of people wearing masks in public. "We are looking at ways of making sure that people really do have face coverings in shops,” he said. “The balance of scientific opinion seems to have shifted more in favour of them than it was, and we're very keen to follow that". "We need to be stricter in insisting that people wear face coverings in confined spaces where they are meeting people they don't usually meet.” Face coverings have been compulsory in shops in Scotland since July 10. The masks are also compulsory on trains, buses and the London Underground, but the British Transport Police said it preferred to enforce the rules by “engaging with the public and explain the reasons why the protections are necessary and a lawful requirement”. Fines have been issued to repeat offenders and some arrests have been made, a spokeswoman said. The Labour Party signalled its support for masks to become compulsory in shops, but not in bars and restaurants, which it said would be impractical. Lucy Powell, a shadow business minister, accused the Government of “showing a bit of leg” by suggesting it would enforce face mask guidelines, but not announcing any change of policy. "We do need to get a lot more confidence back in the system and if the mandatory wearing of face masks in shops will help to do that then we absolutely support it,” she said. "We think the Government – instead of just showing a bit of leg occasionally on these things by briefing newspapers or saying things that are not clear guidance in press conferences as the Prime Minister did on Friday – [should] get some clarity. "That's really something that would get confidence back into the system and get people feeling that they can go to the shops, they can go to restaurants and go to bars." On Saturday, Mr Johnson was pictured wearing a mask during a visit to a pub and barber in his constituency. The Prime Minister chose to wear a light blue cloth mask that matched his party’s branding. It was the first time Mr Johnson has been photographed wearing a mask, following concern that Government ministers were discouraging mask usage by not wearing them in public. Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, was criticised for not wearing one while serving food at Wagamama in a photo opportunity following last week’s budget announcement, while Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, did not cover his face while being photographed at a Brewdog pub. Donald Trump, the US President, was pictured in a face mask on an official visit for the first time over the weekend, while Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, has been seen wearing a Government-branded face covering.



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