US lawmakers reach deal on massive defense bill

The legislation includes $71.5 billion to pay for ongoing foreign wars, known as ‘Overseas Contingency Operations’ funding. (AFP)
Updated 10 December 2019

US lawmakers reach deal on massive defense bill

  • The US House of Representatives and Senate Armed Services Committees agreed on a compromise version of the National Defense Authorization Act
  • The bill says Trump should implement sanctions on Turkey over the S-400 purchase, something lawmakers have been demanding

WASHINGTON: US lawmakers announced an agreement on Monday on a $738-billion bill setting policy for the Department of Defense, including new measures for competing with Russia and China, family leave for federal workers and the creation of President Donald Trump’s long-desired Space Force.
It also calls for sanctions on Turkey over its purchase of a Russian missile defense system, and a tough response to North Korea’s efforts to develop nuclear weapons.
The US House of Representatives and Senate Armed Services Committees agreed on a compromise version of the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, after months of negotiations. It is expected to pass before Congress leaves Washington later this month for the year-end holiday break.
The legislation includes $658.4 billion for the Department of Defense and Department of Energy national security programs, $71.5 billion to pay for ongoing foreign wars, known as “Overseas Contingency Operations” funding, and $5.3 billion in emergency funding for repairs of damage from extreme weather and natural disasters.
There were concerns earlier this year that the NDAA might fail for the first time in 58 years over steep divides between the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives and Republican-controlled Senate over Trump’s policies.
Because it is one of the few pieces of major legislation Congress passes every year, the NDAA becomes a vehicle for a range of policy measures as well as setting everything from military pay levels to which ships or aircraft will be modernized, purchased or discontinued.
It includes a 3.1 percent pay hike for the troops, the largest in a decade and, for the first time, 12 weeks of paid parental leave for federal workers, something Democrats strongly sought.
Among other things, the proposed fiscal 2020 NDAA imposes sanctions related to Russia’s Nord Stream 2 and TurkStream pipelines and bars military-to-military cooperation with Russia.
Russia is building the pipelines to bolster supply to Europe while bypassing Ukraine, and members of Congress have been pushing the Trump administration to do more to stop the projects as they near completion.
The NDAA also prohibits the transfer of F-35 stealth fighter jets, which Lockheed Martin Corp. is developing, to Turkey. It expresses a Sense of Congress that Turkey’s acquisition of Russia’s S-400 missile defense system, which Washington says it not compatible with NATO defenses and threatens the F-35, constitutes a significant transaction under US sanctions law.
The bill says Trump should implement sanctions on Turkey over the S-400 purchase, something lawmakers have been demanding.
The NDAA also reauthorizes $300 million of funding for the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, to include lethal defensive items as well as new authorities for coastal defense cruise missiles and anti-ship missiles.
Military aid to Ukraine has been at the center of the impeachment inquiry into Trump, after his administration held up security assistance for Kiev last summer even as the country dealt with challenges from Russia.
Fulfilling one of Trump’s most high-profile requests, the bill establishes the US Space Force as the sixth Armed Service of the United States, under the Air Force.
The legislation also contains a series of provisions intended to address potential threats from China, including requiring reports on China’s overseas investments and its military relations with Russia.
It bars the use of federal funds to buy rail cars and buses from China, and it says Congress “unequivocally supports” residents of Hong Kong as they defend their rights and seek to preserve their autonomy with China. It also supports improving Taiwan’s defense capabilities.
The NDAA calls for a sweeping approach to North Korea’s nuclear weapons development, as well as the threat it poses to US forces on the Korean peninsula and allies in the region.
It puts mandatory sanctions on North Korean imports and exports of coal and other minerals and textiles, as well as some petroleum products and crude oil, and it puts additional sanctions on banks that deal with North Korea.
The bill also bars the Pentagon from reducing the number of troops deployed to South Korea below 28,500 unless the Secretary of Defense certifies that it is in the US national security interest to do so.


First day of Afghan truce as Taliban instruct fighters to cease violence 

Updated 22 February 2020

First day of Afghan truce as Taliban instruct fighters to cease violence 

  • US and Taliban forces enforce mutually agreed seven-day reduction in violence in Afghanistan, starting midnight on Friday
  • Peace pact to be signed on Feb 29, intra-Afghan negotiations to follow soon after to deliver “permanent cease-fire“

ISLAMABAD: The Taliban military commission has instructed fighters of the insurgency to cease violence from February 22, the group said in a statement on Friday as the United States and the Taliban announced that they would sign a peace pact on February 29 to end America’s longest war after more than 18 years. 

Arab News reported on February 17 that the long-awaited peace agreement was scheduled to be signed on February 29 in Doha, Qatar, in the presence of international dignitaries and guarantors. 

On Friday, the Taliban military commission instructed its fighters not to carry out out any more attacks, including suicide and rocket assaults against US and allied forces in all provincial headquarters, foreign forces bases, Kabul city and all military corps of the Kabul administration, according to a statement and two audio recordings that Arab News is privy to.

The pause in attacks will continue until February 29, according to the Pashto-language order. In return, foreign and Afghan government forces will not conduct attacks, drone strikes, bombings, night raids, rocket and missile attacks on Taliban bases, the Taliban said in the letter send to its commanders.

“All governors and responsible persons should maintain round-the-clock contacts with and no one has the right to establish any contact with the enemy,” the order said. “Those will face severe punishment who will enter the area under the control of the enemy.”

On Friday, following a Taliban statement, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also confirmed that a peace pact would be signed on February 29.

“The only way to achieve a sustainable peace in Afghanistan is for Afghans to come together and agree on the way forward,” Pompeo said in a statement issued by the US State Department.

The statements came hours before US and Taliban forces enforced a mutually agreed seven-day reduction in violence in Afghanistan, starting midnight on Friday, meaning neither side would conduct offensive operations.

Intra-Afghan negotiations will start soon after February 29 and “build on this fundamental step to deliver a comprehensive and permanent cease-fire and the future political roadmap for Afghanistan,” Pompeo said.

Taliban political spokesman Suhail Shaheen told Arab News on Thursday that no final decision had as yet been taken about the venue of an intra-Afghan dialogue, tentatively to be held on March 10. 

US officials have said the success of the temporary deal would enable the two sides to move ahead with the signing ceremony scheduled in Doha, the Qatari capital, which houses the Taliban’s political office and where the two negotiating teams have hammered out a comprehensive draft agreement after talks spread over a period of 18 months.

The Taliban said in a statement that both parties would now create a “suitable security situation” in advance of the agreement signing date, extend invitations to senior representatives of numerous countries and organizations to participate in the signing ceremony and make arrangements for the release of prisoners.

Senior Taliban negotiator Abdul Salam Hanafi said this week that 5,000 Taliban prisoners would be released under the agreement while the Taliban would set free 1,000 Afghans.

Shaheen tweeted that all foreign forces would leave Afghanistan under the agreement and no one would be allowed to use Afghan soil to launch attacks.

Experts pointed to possible challenges in implementing the peace agreement and the cease-fire.

“In case there are breaches/violations in the cease-fire it would manifest that either the Taliban factions are dissatisfied with the cease-fire or the spoilers inside Afghanistan may also take advantage and indulge in violence and put the responsibility on the shoulders of the Taliban,” Pakistan’s former ambassador Asif Khan Durrani told Arab News.

Also, the peace pact is meant to be followed by talks between the Taliban and the government in Kabul, a process that will certainly be complicated by a bitterly disputed presidential election, in which the opposition candidate claimed victory despite President Ashraf Ghani having been declared the winner. With rival claimants to legitimacy, experts say it is unclear who would negotiate with the Taliban following the peace pact, whether they would be prepared to enter talks while struggling to control the government, or what kind of mandate they would have.