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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.

French Pension Strikes Expand, Police Gird for New Protests

French airport workers, teachers and others joined nationwide strikes Tuesday as unions cranked up pressure on the government to scrap changes to the national retirement system.

Police ordered shops and restaurants closed across a swath of Paris, fearing violence on the fringes of what government opponents hope is another mass march in the afternoon. At least 800,000 people turned out for demonstrations around France when the strike movement kicked off last Thursday.

Protests are also planned Tuesday in other cities, as the strike pushes on into a sixth straight day. Unions fear President Emmanuel Macron’s retirement reform will force people to work longer for smaller pensions, even though the government says it won’t raise the official retirement age of 62.

Only about a fifth of French trains ran normally Tuesday, frustrating tourists who found train stations empty and trains canceled, and most Paris subways were at a halt. The Paris region registered double the number of traffic jams at morning rush hour than on a normal day.

Overall the number of striking workers is lower than last week but travelers’ patience is wearing thin, as commuters struggle to squeeze on scarce regional trains to get to work.

Air France, the national carrier, said more than 25% of its domestic traffic would be grounded Tuesday by the strike, along with more than 10% of its medium-range flights.

Chile Air Force Plane Vanishes During Flight to Antarctica

Chile’s military has launched a search and rescue mission for an air force plane carrying 38 people that disappeared Monday during a flight to a base in Antarctica.

The C-130 Hercules aircraft took off from the southern city of Punta Arenas, located more than 3,000 kilometers south of the capital Santiago. The 17 crewmen and 21 passengers were heading to the Antarctic outpost to check on a floating fuel supply line and other equipment.  

The air force says it lost contact with the plane nearly an hour-and-a-half later.

N. Korea Unveils Hot Spring Ski Resort in Next Big Tourism Push

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un held a ribbon-cutting ceremony for North Korea’s new mountainous luxury spa.

Video released by North Korean state media on Dec. 8 revealed Kim receiving a bouquet of flowers and clapping in front of a sprawling winter hot spring complex, called the Yangdok Hot Spring Cultural Recreation Center. The state media report showed footage of outdoor hot spring spas, a ski resort and an equestrian park with young children riding horses.

“[Kim] hardly repressed his happiness, saying that it has become possible to provide people with new culture, and one more plan of the Party to make our people enjoy high civilization under socialism as early as possible has come true,” an announcer from the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said.

The recreation center no doubt looks new, but it’s a project that “has been in the works for like a decade,” according to Jenny Town, a fellow at the Stimson Center and managing editor of North Korea news analysis site 38North.

“[The center’s opening] is absolutely significant,” Town told VOA News. “There’s a real priority in the tourist sector right now, and part of that is an opportunity for North Korea. All the reports that we hear claim that there are tons of Chinese tourists coming in every day.”

Tourism is one of North Korea’s few industries that remains free of U.N. Security Council sanctions meant to pressure Kim to abandon the country’s nuclear weapons program. But while export bans on seafood and coal are hurting the economy, North Korea still appears to be heavily investing in other tourism projects in recent months. Pyongyang’s state-run newspaper recently announced a medical tourism program that would offer foreign visitors dental implants, cataract surgery and other medical procedures.

Meanwhile, inter-Korean tourism appears to be facing a setback. In October, Kim reportedly ordered the demolition of several South Korean-built hotels and tourist facilities at the Diamond Mountain Resort along the North Korean side of the border. In a KCNA report, Kim called the facilities “shabby” and said he would re-develop the resort by himself.

“Right now, it’s all about being able to provide amenities other than just tours of Pyongyang to tourists,” Town said.

Experts: Trump Should Take N. Korea’s End-of-Year Deadline Seriously

U.S. President Donald Trump appears to be calling North Korea’s bluff on its end-of-year deadline for nuclear negotiations, prompting some analysts to wonder whether the U.S. president should be taking Pyongyang’s threats more seriously.

“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 with the U.S. Presidential Election in November,” Trump tweeted on Dec. 9. “North Korea, under the leadership of Kim Jong Un, has tremendous economic  potential, but it must denuclearize as promised.”

That same day, a top North Korean official released a threatening statement that addressed the U.S. president directly through the country’s state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).

“It seems that Trump is very anxious to know what we are thinking now. And he feels very fretful about what will be done by us,” said Ri Su Yong, vice-chairman of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea. “The recent words and expressions spouted one after another by Trump sound like a threat to someone at a glance, but they are a corroboration that he feels fear inside.”

“Trump might be in great jitters, 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,” Ri continued.

In both Seoul and Washington, experts are concerned that Trump’s bluster will only continue to yield mirrored responses from Pyongyang.

“Whether Trump is taking [North Korea’s deadline] seriously is really unclear. But he definitely should be,” Jenny Town, a fellow at the Stimson Center and managing editor of North Korea news analysis site 38North.

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.

“It’s one thing to talk about having a great relationship [with North Korea], and it’s another thing to emphasize ‘you need me’ and the sentiment that’s very much along the line of the ‘don’t be a tough guy’ comment to [Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan],” Town said. “It’s just not going to play out the way Trump wants it to.”

John Delury, a North Korea analyst and associate professor of Chinese Studies at Yonsei University in Seoul, believes North Korea is firm about its end-of-year deadline.

“There’s two parties to the negotiation. If one party says they have a deadline, it’s a deadline,” he said. “I mean, the other party can choose to ignore it, but there are consequences.”

Kim Jong Un first set the deadline during a diplomatic deadlock last April, shortly after talks with Trump broke down at the Hanoi summit in late February.

“North Korea has been so consistent with their messaging about this deadline and they put so much emphasis on this deadline that, you know, I don’t think it’s the right thing to approach it by saying it’s arbitrarily made up,” Delury said.

It’s unclear what the United States would need to do to pass Pyongyang’s deadline, but experts said a proposal with tangible concessions and detailed steps toward denuclearization would be a good start.

“North Korea is looking for a deal to consider,” Town said. “… But it seems pretty clear that Kim Jong Un has already made a decision as to what he thinks is going to happen. Now, he’s basically looking for the U.S. to change his mind.”

New Zealand to Launch Investigation into Volcano Deaths

New Zealand police say they are launching an investigation in connection with the volcanic eruption on New Zealand’s White Island that killed five tourists Monday.  

Deputy Commissioner John Tims told reporters earlier Tuesday that the probe was criminal in nature, but police later issued a statement revising Tims’s announcement.  The police investigation is being conducted by alongside a probe by New Zealand’s safety regulator.

The country’s seismic monitoring agency GeoNet raised the volcano’s alert level last month to level two on the five-level scale that monitors its chances of eruption. Still pictures captured by a GeoNet camera showed a group of tourists walking on the crater floor moments before the eruption.

Along with the five confirmed deaths, eight others are missing and presumed dead and at least 31 have been injured.  New Zealand chief medical officer

Pete Watson said at least 27 survivors are being treated for burns to more than 71 percent of their bodies.

Authorities say about 47 people were touring the island at the time of the eruption, including 24 Australians, with the rest from the United States, Britain, Germany, China, Malaysia and New Zealand.  Some of the victims were passengers from a cruise ship operated by Royal Caribbean.  

Conditions on White Island have made it impossible for rescue crews to return to the island to search for any survivors.  GeoNet says there is still a 50 percent chance of another eruption within the next day.

“To those who have lost or are missing family and friends, we share in your grief and sorrow, and we are devastated” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Tuesday in Parliament.  Prime Minister Ardern also praised the pilots  who risked their lives to fly to White Island to rescue survivors.  

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said three Australians are feared to be among the five confirmed deaths, while at least 13 were hospitalized.  

White Island, also known by its Maori name Whakaari, sits about 50 kilometers northeast of the town of Tauranga on North Island, attracts about 10,000 visitors every year.  It is New Zealand’s most active cone volcano, with about 70% of the island under the sea.

Russia, Ukraine leaders Agree on Ceasefire Following Four-Way Talks in Paris

Russian and Ukrainian leaders agreed to implement a ceasefire and a prisoners’ swap by years end, following four-way talks in Paris on Monday that also included France and Germany. 

The four heads of state said they had made progress and that just talking was a key step forward. They are to meet again in four months.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky said he was confident of the ceasefire would take place this month. He outlined both steps forward and progress still to be made during a late night press conference, echoing similar remarks made by other leaders there.

“It’s not a frozen situation,” Zelensky said. “And to answer your question, yes I do feel we will meet again in another four months, and be in a position to go forward and address other questions on the basis of our achievements.”

This is the first meeting between Zelensky and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin since the Ukrainian actor took office earlier this year. It’s the first such four-way summit since 2016 that also includes France and Germany.

Putin said describing a possible thaw between Russia and Ukraine was correct.

“We’ve have had progress on most issues,” Putin said. “All of this does suggest that things are going the right way.”

The talks aim to pave a solution to the ongoing conflict between the two countries that has killed more than 13,000 people since 2014. Both sides have since accused the other of failing to honor a 2015 peace agreement.

President Zelensky, a political newcomer, has made ending the conflict a priority.

But many Ukrainians are worried he may concede too much. Ahead of the Paris meeting, thousands demonstrated in the capital Kyiv against any so-called “capitulation” to Moscow.

The talks are also seen as a diplomatic test for host Emmanuel Macron. The French President wants to re-engage with Russia after several years of European Union sanctions over the Ukraine crisis. But that has gotten pushback from EU members like Poland. 

Argentine Bond Prices Rise on Relief over Upcoming Debt Revamp

Argentine bond prices rose on Monday in the first session since President-elect Alberto Fernandez named debt restructuring expert Martin Guzman as economy minister, the central figure in a cabinet that will start serving after Tuesday’s inauguration.

Over the counter bond prices popped an average 2.1% higher and country risk spreads tightened, showing the market took Fernandez’s cabinet picks in stride.

Guzman, 37, will be responsible for sparking growth, taming inflation and steering restructuring talks with creditors and the International Monetary Fund over about $100 billion in debt.

Creditors had feared that Peronist Fernandez might take a tough stance in upcoming restructuring talks. But Guzman, who sees the problem as one of liquidity rather than solvency, has advocated for a debt revamp based on a suspension of payments that would preserve eventual repayment of principal.

Such an approach would avoid a “haircut,” or outright cut in the return of creditors’ principal investment.

“There had been uncertainty about the debt restructuring proposal. Guzman does not want to implement a haircut on the principal. So this clears some of the fear that had been priced into bonds,” said Gabriel Zelpo, director of economic consultancy Seido.

Sovereign risk spreads tightened 123 basis points to 2,194 over safe-haven U.S. Treasuries on JP Morgan’s Emerging Markets Bond Index Plus, having blown out from the 480 basis points where the index stood when outgoing President Mauricio Macri, a proponent of free markets, took office in late 2015.

FILE – An entrance to the Central Bank of the Argentine Republic is pictured in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Oct. 28, 2019.

Inflation has risen under Macri, and the peso has lost 83.75% of its value while Latin America’s No. 3 economy has stalled. Consumer prices are up more than 50% so far this year after a 47.6% rise in 2018. The peso was stable on Monday at just under 60 to the dollar.

Guzman, an academic and protégé of Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, is an expert in bond restructurings.

He opposed Macri’s austerity drive, which included public utility subsidy cuts that jacked up power and heating bills paid by Argentine families and businesses.

Those utility bill increases fueled the inflation that dogged Macri’s four years in power, killed his once-high popularity and undermined his re-election campaign.

Markets had been on edge since Fernandez thumped Macri in the August primary election. The lopsided victory signaled a shift away from Macri’s strict pro-business policy stance. The inauguration will take place around midday on Tuesday.


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 Olympics “are 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.”

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.


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.

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.


Fishermen Mass to Overwhelm Mexico’s Protected Porpoises

A conservation group trying to protect the world’s most endangered marine mammal said Monday that hundreds of fishermen massed in dozens of boats to fish illegally in Mexico’s Gulf of California.

Activists with the Sea Shepherd group said they witnessed about 80 small fishing boats pulling nets full of endangered totoaba fish from the water near the port of San Felipe on Sunday.

Those same nets catch vaquita porpoises. Perhaps as few as 10 of the small, elusive porpoises remain in the Gulf of California, which is the only place they live.

While totoaba are more numerous, they are also protected. But their swim bladders are considered a delicacy in China and command high prices.

The Mexican government prohibits net fishing in the gulf, also known as the Sea of Cortez, but budget cuts have meant authorities have stopped compensation payments for fishermen for not fishing.

Sea Shepherd operates in the area to remove the gillnets that trap vaquitas, but the group said the mass fishing seen Sunday was a new tactic, in which a number of boats would surround and enclose totoabas to ensure they couldn’t escape the nets.

The mass turnout overwhelmed the relatively few Mexican navy personnel present, the group said. In the past, fishermen have attacked Sea Shepherd boats as well as naval vessels.