US defense chief in Afghanistan to assess the way ahead

Defense Secretary Mark Esper believes the US can reduce its force in Afghanistan to 8,600 without hurting the counterterrorism fight against Al-Qaeda and the Daesh group. (AP)
Updated 20 October 2019

US defense chief in Afghanistan to assess the way ahead

  • Mark Esper believes the US can reduce its force in Afghanistan to 8,600 without hurting the counterterrorism fight against Al-Qaeda and the Daesh group
  • The US has about 14,000 American troops in Afghanistan as part of the American-led coalition

KABUL, Afghanistan: US Defense Secretary Mark Esper arrived Sunday in Afghanistan, where stalled peace talks with the Taliban and persistent violent attacks by the insurgent group and Daesh militants have complicated the Trump administration’s pledged to withdraw more than 5,000 American troops.
Esper told reporters traveling with him that he believes the US can reduce its force in Afghanistan to 8,600 without hurting the counterterrorism fight against Al-Qaeda and the Daesh group. But he said any withdrawal would happen as part of a peace agreement with the Taliban.
The US has about 14,000 American troops in Afghanistan as part of the American-led coalition. US forces are training and advising Afghan forces and conducting counterterrorism operations against extremists. President Donald Trump had ordered a troop withdrawal in conjunction with the peace talks that would have left about 8,600 American forces in the country.
US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad had a preliminary peace deal with the Taliban, but a surge in Taliban violence and the death of an American soldier last month prompted Trump to cancel a secret Camp David meeting where the peace deal would have been finalized. He declared the tentative agreement dead.
“The aim is to still get a peace agreement at some point, that’s the best way forward,” said Esper, who was making his first trip to Afghanistan as defense secretary. He visited Afghanistan in his previous job as US Army secretary.
He would not say how long he believes it may be before a new peace accord could be achieved.
A month after the peace agreement collapsed, Zalmay met with Taliban in early October in Islamabad, Pakistan, but it was not clear what progress, if any, was being made.
Esper’s arrival in Kabul came as Afghan government leaders delayed the planned announcement of preliminary results of last month’s presidential election. Esper said he plans to meet with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
Both Ghani and his current partner in the unity government, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, have said they believe they had enough votes to win. The Sept. 28 vote was marred by widespread misconduct and accusations of fraud.
Officials said the announcement of preliminary results has been delayed due to problems with the transparency of the process, delays in transferring ballot papers and delays in transferring data from a biometric system into the main server.
Esper planned to meet with his top commanders in Afghanistan as the US works to determine the way ahead in the 18-year war.
Trump, since his 2016 presidential campaign, has spoken of a need to withdraw US troops from the “endless war” in Afghanistan. He has complained that the US has been serving as policemen in Afghanistan, and says that’s not the American military’s job.


Mauritius declares emergency as stranded ship spills fuel

Updated 11 min 22 sec ago

Mauritius declares emergency as stranded ship spills fuel

  • Mauritius declares emergency as stranded ship spills fuel

JOHANNESBURG: The Indian Ocean island of Mauritius declared a “state of environmental emergency” late Friday after a Japanese-owned ship that ran aground offshore days ago began spilling tons of fuel.
Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth announced the development as satellite images showed a dark slick spreading in the turquoise waters near environmental areas that the government called “very sensitive.”
Mauritius has said the ship was carrying nearly 4,000 tons of fuel and cracks have appeared in its hull.
Jugnauth earlier in the day said his government was appealing to France for help, saying the spill “represents a danger” for the country of some 1.3 million people that relies heavily on tourism and has been been hit hard by the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Our country doesn’t have the skills and expertise to refloat stranded ships, so I have appealed for help from France and President Emmanuel Macron,” he said. Bad weather has made it impossible to act, and “I worry what could happen Sunday when the weather deteriorates.”
Jugnauth shared a photo of the vessel, the MV Wakashio, tilted precariously. “Sea rough beyond the reefs with swells. Ventures in the open seas are not advised,” according to the Mauritius Meteorological Services.
Video posted online showed oily waters lapping at the shore as people murmured and peered at the ship in the distance. Online ship trackers showed the Panama-flagged bulk carrier had been en route from China to Brazil.
The French island of Reunion is the closest neighbor to Mauritius, and France’s Foreign Ministry says France is Mauritius’s “leading foreign investor” and one of its largest trading partners.
“We are in a situation of environmental crisis,” the environment minister of Mauritius, Kavy Ramano, said, calling the Blue Bay Marine Park and other areas near the leaking ship “very sensitive.”
After the cracks in the hull were detected, a salvage team that had been working on the ship was evacuated, Ramano told reporters Thursday. Some 400 sea booms have been deployed in an effort to contain the spill.
Government statements this week said the ship ran aground July 25 and the National Coast Guard received no distress call. The ship’s owners were listed as the Japanese companies Okiyo Maritime Corporation and Nagashiki Shipping Co. Ltd.
A police inquiry has been opened into issues such as possible negligence, a government statement said.
Tons of diesel and oil are now leaking into the water, environmental group Greenpeace Africa’s climate and energy manager Happy Khambule said in a statement.
“Thousands of species around the pristine lagoons of Blue Bay, Pointe d’Esny and Mahebourg are at risk of drowning in a sea of pollution, with dire consequences for Mauritius’ economy, food security and health,” Khambule said.
A government environmental outlook released nearly a decade ago said Mauritius had a National Oil Spill Contingency Plan but equipment on hand was “adequate to deal with oil spills of less than 10 metric tons.”
In case of major spills, it said, assistance could be obtained from other Indian Ocean countries or from international oil spill response organizations.