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Delay in Afghanistan policy points to White House rift
Washington (AFP) Aug 4, 2017

Taliban suicide bomber kills NATO soldier in Afghanistan
Kabul (AFP) Aug 3, 2017 - A Taliban suicide bomber attacked a convoy of foreign forces in Afghanistan late Thursday, killing one NATO soldier and wounding six other personnel, in the latest blow to the international coalition in the war-torn country.

The deadly attack near Bagram Airbase comes at the peak of the Taliban summer fighting season and just a day after the insurgent group killed two US soldiers in the restive southern province of Kandahar.

"One Resolute Support Soldier was killed and six personnel (five troops and one interpreter) were wounded Thursday evening when their patrol was attacked by a suicide bomber," Nato said in a statement referring to the name of its Afghan mission.

"The patrol was conducting a partnered mission with the Afghan National Army when a personnel-borne IED (improvised explosive device) detonated," in Qarabagh district in Kabul province.

"The RS personnel who were wounded are being treated at the U.S. military hospital at Bagram Airfield. All of the wounded are listed in stable condition," it added.

The nationality of the dead soldier and injured was not immediately known but Qarabagh district is located near Bagram Airbase, the largest American base in Afghanistan, around 50 kilometres north of the capital Kabul.

The Taliban quickly claimed the attack on social media and in Whatsapp messages to journalists.

Civilians were also reported to have been wounded in the nighttime attack.

"#Afghanistan explosion in Qarabagh district, 12 wounded brought to our #Kabul hospital so far," tweeted an Italian-run hospital in the capital which specialises in dealing with victims of bombings.

The attack came after two US soldiers died on Wednesday when a Taliban suicide bomber rammed a vehicle filled with explosives into a convoy of foreign forces in the big poppy-growing region of Kandahar.

NATO forces ended their more than a decade-long combat mission in Afghanistan at the end of 2014.

Since then Afghan troops and police, beset by soaring casualties, have struggled to beat back the resurgent Taliban, while facing the growing menace of the Islamic State group.

The Taliban have been ramping up their campaign against beleaguered government forces, underscoring rising insecurity in the country during the summer fighting season, when the warmer weather tends to spur an increase in militant attacks.

Early last month a US soldier was killed and two others wounded in an attack in Kandahar's neighbouring Helmand province while conducting operations against the Taliban.

The attacks come as United States President Donald Trump weighs sending more American troops to Afghanistan nearly 16 years after the US invasion to topple the Taliban regime.

US troops in Afghanistan now number about 8,400, and there are another 5,000 from NATO allies, a far cry from the US presence of more than 100,000 six years ago. They mainly serve as trainers and advisers.

American military commanders in Afghanistan have requested thousands of extra boots on the ground and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is believed to be close to presenting a new US military strategy for Afghanistan to Trump.

President Donald Trump has yet to announce a plan for Afghanistan, and delays in unveiling his strategy point to deep rifts in the White House on how to handle America's longest war.

Such is the uncertainty about what to do -- send thousands more troops into a nearly 16-year conflict, or take the opposite tack and pull out -- that Trump has reportedly even suggested firing the general in charge of the war effort.

"We aren't winning... we are losing," Trump complained to top officials while upbraiding his military advisors at a White House meeting last month, NBC News reported, citing senior officials.

Trump's generals have called the Afghan conflict a "stalemate," and even after years of intensive help from the US and other NATO nations, Afghanistan's security forces still are struggling to hold back an emboldened Taliban.

In an early move to address the situation, Trump gave his Pentagon chief, Jim Mattis, broad powers to set troop numbers in Afghanistan and elsewhere. But several months later the level remains stuck at about 8,400 US and about 5,000 NATO troops.

Mattis wants to wait until the White House has come up with a coherent strategy for not just Afghanistan but the broader region, notably Pakistan and how it deals with terror groups, before he commits to any adjustments.

Mattis told lawmakers on June 13 he would present a detailed Afghanistan plan by mid-July -- but that timeframe came and went with no announcements.

"This is hard work and so you got to get it right. And that's all there is to it. So, we're working to get it right," Mattis told Pentagon reporters July 21.

According to NBC, Trump a day earlier had told Mattis and General Joe Dunford, who is Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, they should replace General John Nicholson, who heads up US and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

The White House declined to comment, and Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said only: "Secretary Mattis has confidence in General Nicholson's leadership."

Several lawmakers spoke in Nicholson's defense Thursday and two weeks have passed since the meeting, with the general still in position.

Meanwhile the situation in Afghanistan is as deadly as ever, with more than 2,500 Afghan police and troops killed in from January 1 to May 8.

US forces -- who are supposed to be in a non-combat role -- are still dying too, with nine killed in action so far this year, including two in Kandahar on Wednesday. The tally for 2017 is now the same as for all of 2016.

- 'No strategy for success' -

In signs of broader divisions in the White House, Trump's National Security Advisor General HR McMaster -- who is helping lead the push for a new Afghanistan plan -- on Wednesday fired Ezra Cohen-Watnick, his senior intelligence director.

That comes on the heels of the departure of a contentious top Middle East advisor, Derek Harvey, who left in July.

And chief strategist Steve Bannon was himself ousted from his seat on the National Security Council, which decides issues of war and peace.

According to the New York Times, Bannon and Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner have pushed an idea to let private contractors conduct security work in Afghanistan instead of American soldiers.

Pentagon officials have said Mattis is weighing sending just shy of 4,000 troops to Afghanistan to operate in a non-combat role assisting local forces.

Military Times on Wednesday cited an Afghan government official as saying that Eric Prince, who was the former head of a controversial private military firm once known as Blackwater, had even offered to supply a private air force.

Senior Republican Senator John McCain, a longtime critic of the Obama administration's warfighting policies, this week expressed exasperation over Trump's lack of Afghanistan policy.

McCain said if a new plan hadn't been fleshed out by September, he would offer his own one -- based on the "advice of some our best military leaders" -- that he'd tack onto a massive military spending bill.

"There still is no strategy for success in Afghanistan," McCain said, though he provided no details on what his might be.

When Trump visited the Pentagon last month, a reporter asked him whether he would be sending more troops to Afghanistan.

"We'll see," he said, before changing the subject.

For Pakistanis, China 'friendship' road runs one way
Tashkurgan, China (AFP) Aug 2, 2017
The China-Pakistan Friendship Highway runs over 1,300 kilometres (800 miles) from the far western Chinese city of Kashgar through the world's highest mountain pass and across the border. For China, the two-lane thoroughfare symbolises a blossoming partnership, nourished with tens of billions of dollars of infrastructure investment. But for many Pakistani businessmen living and working on ... read more

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