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U.S. military to keep two larger Afghan bases after drawdown to 2,500

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Pentagon has approved drawdown plans in Afghanistan that will still keep two larger bases in the country as officials carry out President Donald Trump’s orders to slash troop levels to 2,500 by Jan. 15, the top U.S. general said on Wednesday.

Trump’s post-election decision last month to cut nearly half of the roughly 4,500 troops currently in Afghanistan came before military leaders could devise plans to execute a drawdown, leaving many questions unanswered about the future U.S. military mission after Trump leaves office on Jan. 20.

Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, offered the first details about the drawdown at an event hosted by the Brookings Institution think tank. He said that in addition to the two larger bases, the United States would also keep “several satellite bases.”

He said the U.S. military will also continue its two core missions: aiding Afghan security forces who are locked in a grinding conflict with Taliban insurgents and carrying out counterterrorism operations against Islamic State and al Qaeda militants.

However, Milley did not disclose which bases in Afghanistan would be shuttered or say what capabilities would be lost as the United States removes 2,000 troops from the country. He declined to speculate about what President-elect Joe Biden may decide.

“What comes after that, that will be up to a new administration,” Milley said.

As the United States prepares to withdraw more troops, the U.S.-backed Afghan government and Taliban representatives reached a preliminary deal on Wednesday to press on with peace talks.

It was their first written agreement in 19 years of war that Milley said has long been stalemated, with neither side able to defeat the other on the battlefield.

Looking back, Milley said the United States had “achieved a modicum of success” in Afghanistan. He stressed the importance of peace talks, even as he acknowledged that the idea of sitting down with Taliban representatives was “odious” to some people.

“But that is in fact the most common way that insurgencies end, is through a power-sharing negotiated settlement,” he said.

The Taliban were ousted from power in 2001 by U.S.-led forces for refusing to hand over al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden, the architect of the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States. A U.S.-backed government has held power in Afghanistan since then, although the Taliban have control over wide areas of the country.

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Zafarullah Khan Jamali dies at 76

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Zafarullah Khan Jamali, a veteran Pakistani politician who served as the country’s prime minister from 2002 to 2004 died on Wednesday at a hospital in the garrison city of Rawalpindi, days after he suffered a heart attack at the age of 76.

Jamali served as prime minister during the tenure of ex-dictator Pervez Musharraf. He resigned over differences on several political issues with Musharraf, who is currently living in self-imposed exiled in Dubai.

Musharraf was forced to resign in 2008 when politicians backing him lost parliamentary elections. He seized power in 1999 when he ousted the government of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in a military coup.

Even after his resignation, the soft-spoken Jamali known for his decency in politics, never spoke against Musharraf.

Jamali was born in 1944 in Pakistan’s southwestern Baluchistan province. He entered politics in 1960s and remained active until a few months ago.

During his political career, he was associated with various parties, including Pakistan People’s Party and Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League, as well as one of its factions.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and several other politicians conveyed their condolences to Jamali’s family over his passing.

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Mars Throws Shade at Chocolate Rivals in Global Cocoa Fight

(Bloomberg) — American chocolate icon Mars Inc. sought to distance itself from rivals after the world’s top cocoa producers accused companies of trying to skirt paying a premium aimed at boosting farmers’ incomes.

In a letter to cocoa regulators in Ivory Coast and Ghana, the maker of M&Ms, Twix and Snickers said that it “categorically disagrees” with allegations that it changed its purchasing patterns to avoid paying the $400-a-ton charge, a practice that may be true for others in the industry.

The move comes after the West African nations, which account for about 70% of global supplies, accused competitor Hershey Co. of squeezing the futures market in New York to get its hands on cocoa that doesn’t incur the premium. The nations also accused Mars of changing its cocoa butter purchasing and Olam International Ltd. of changing its recipes for the same reason.

“We remain extremely concerned by these false accusations which, while may be true for other players in the industry, are in no way reflective of Mars,” Michelle O’Neill, global vice president of corporate affairs for cocoa at Mars, said in the Dec. 1 letter, requesting to discuss the matter with the cocoa regulators’ leadership “at your earliest convenience.”

Ivory Coast and Ghana started charging the hefty premium for their beans from the season that started in October. While most traders and chocolate makers agreed to support the so-called Living Income Differential aimed at improving farmer livelihoods, the pandemic that locked down cities from Paris to Los Angeles meant many needed to cut costs.

Mars was one of the first chocolate companies to publicly support the premium, announcing more than a year ago that it had started purchases for the 2020-21 season. The company said the recent cocoa butter it bought was part of regular, repeat purchases consistent with its supplies and cocoa-bean origins it used in the past three years, according to the letter.

“We were the first chocolate company to publicly support the LID, and are disappointed that others in the industry have recently chosen different purchasing routes,” Mars said in a separate statement. “For cocoa farmers to thrive, all chocolate manufacturers and suppliers should be following our lead by supporting the LID, investing in sustainability programs to protect children and forests and purchasing responsible and sustainable cocoa.”

Ivory Coast and Ghana suspended Hershey’s sustainability programs in the countries and those of any third parties run on behalf of the Pennsylvania-based company. They also threatened to suspend licenses of the companies that don’t comply with the order.

“It is sad that when all parties involved really want the same end results of lifting farmers standard of living, that it has become so fractious instead of collaborating and setting examples,” said Judy Ganes, president of J. Ganes Consulting, who has followed markets for more than 30 years and previously worked for Merrill Lynch.

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Bangladesh’s Govt okays Direct Procurement Method for buying Covid-19 vaccines

Monitoring Desk

The Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs on Wednesday approved a proposal in principle to follow the Direct Procurement Method (DPM) for procuring the Coronavirus (Covid-19) vaccines since it was a matter of urgent state necessity.

The approval came from the 24th meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs in this year held virtually today with Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Anisul Huq in the chair.

Briefing reporters after the meeting virtually, Cabinet Division Additional Secretary Dr Abu Saleh Mostafa Kamal informed that according to the PPR, 2008, any public procurement proposal of over Taka five crore in a year would come before the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs.

He said since a huge quantity of doses of Covid-19 vaccines would have to be procured at a time to face the pandemic, the meeting approved in principle the proposal for following the DPM method for procuring Covid-19 vaccines in line with the Section 76(2) of the PPR, 2008.

Earlier after the Cabinet meeting last Monday, Cabinet Secretary Khandker Anwarul Islam said that the government would provide 3 crore (30 million) doses of vaccine initially among the people free of cost alongside taking tougher action to compel people wearing masks to check further spread of the coronavirus in the country.

“Three crore doses of Covid-19 vaccines, which are being procured primarily, will be given to the people free of cost,” the Cabinet Secretary told a news briefing at Bangladesh Secretariat emerging from a regular weekly cabinet meeting on Monday.

Anwarul had also informed that the prime minister has already given consent to procure 3 crore doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine from the Serum Institute of India (SII) while the government has already allocated Taka 735.77 crore to purchase the vaccines.

Courtesy: The New Nation

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Japan protests against Russian missile deployment on disputed islands

TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan’s government has lodged a protest after Russia’s military deployed a number of its new S-300V4 missile defence systems for combat duty on a disputed chain of islands near Japan, Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato said on Wednesday.

A territorial row over the islands, which the Soviets seized at the end of World War Two, has prevented the two countries from signing a formal peace treaty. Japan calls the islands the Northern Territories and Russia calls them the Kurils.

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Hundreds Indonesians flee as volcano spews lava and ash

(AFP)– Hundreds of Indonesians have fled their villages after a rumbling volcano spewed hot ash thousands of meters into the air and belched lava down its crater.

Mount Semeru on Java island spouted the towering column on Tuesday, prompting a call for around 500 people to temporarily evacuate their homes.

Footage from the scene showed dead livestock covered by pyroclastic flows — a fast-moving mixture of hot gas and volcanic material — as steaming debris flowed into a nearby river.

Local disaster agency chief Agus Triono warned on Wednesday that residents could still be at risk as heavy rains threatened to trigger more volcanic flows from the still-spewing crater.

The eruption came days after Mount Ili Lewotolok roared back to life on the far eastern end of the archipelago nation.

Around 6,000 residents fled to shelters there after the crater ejected a thick tower of debris four kilometres (2.5 miles) into the sky on Sunday, triggering a flight warning and the closure of a local airport. 

There were no reports of injuries or deaths.

Indonesia is home to about 130 active volcanoes due to its position on the “Ring of Fire”, a belt of tectonic plate boundaries circling the Pacific Ocean where frequent seismic activity occurs. 

In late 2018, a volcano in the strait between Java and Sumatra islands erupted, causing an underwater landslide that unleashed a tsunami which killed more than 400 people.

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Trump may run again in 2024

WASHINGTON DC: President Trump is likely to announce he’ll run again in 2024, perhaps before this term even ends, sources tell Axios.

Trump has already set in motion two important strategies to stay relevant and freeze out other Republican rivals.

Last night, Trump was explicit about his 2024 vow, telling guests at a White House holiday party, as tweeted by CNN’s Kaitlan Collins: “It’s been an amazing four years. We are trying to do another four years. Otherwise, I’ll see you in four years.”

The plan: Trump has made plain he’ll fight to keep his ally Ronna McDaniel as head of the RNC, giving him tight control over party HQ.

The president has raised $170 million for his “Election Defense Fund” and political operation — of which, the N.Y. Times points out, $125 million+ goes to a PAC that Trump set up in mid-November, Save America, and can be used for future travel and other political activity.

The intrigue: Trump’s 2024 rivals privately tell Swan they assume Trump’s power will fade post-White House, giving them hope they can still run.

Reality check: Several allies who talk regularly to Trump told me they believe he’ll announce for 2024, but ultimately not make the run because of what one Republican close to Trump called “hurdles he has never before experienced.”

“I think he will have more trouble than he can begin to imagine,” the Republican said. “No one is going to let him have a free pass in the primary.”

“The only question left open is whether the media will give up their addiction to him or not — that will determine a great deal.”

When I asked if that was a reference more to political trouble, financial trouble or legal trouble, the person replied: “Yes.”

But announcing would complicate moves by 2024 rivals and would feed Tru-mp his drug — coverage.

The bottom line: Money + machinery = power. (Axios)

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Israel’s embassy in Manama comes out into the open

TEL AVIV: Israel plans to open an official embassy in Bahrain by the end of December, formalizing 25 years of secret diplomatic contacts, Israeli officials tell me.

Israel already had a diplomatic mission in Manama for the last 11 years, run out of a front company that was listed as a commercial consulting firm.

Now, there will be an Israeli flag and a sign on the door.

The state of play: The new embassy will not be in the same location as the secret diplomatic mission, which will shut down.

In order to open the new embassy as quickly as possible, it will be located in temporary offices.

Driving the news: The two Israeli diplomats who will staff the embassy arrived in Manama last week with their Israeli diplomatic passports.

The Israeli diplomats were welcomed by Bahraini Foreign Ministry representatives and given official accreditations.

On Monday, the senior Israeli diplomat charged with opening the embassies in Bahrain and the UAE, Dror Gabbay, arrived in Manama and viewed several potential locations for the embassy offices.

Bahraini Minister of Industry, Trade and Tourism Zayed al-Zayani arrived in Israel today with a large trade and business delegation to push forward with more agreements and deals.

Behind the scenes: The new embassy staff is under strict security protocols in the aftermath of the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.

Bahrain issued a statement condemning the assassination and calling for all parties to show restraint in order to avoid further escalation.

Gabbay told me the Bahrainis have been very helpful and given a warm welcome to the Israeli diplomats.

“It was all very natural and easygoing. I am not sure I would have believed you if you told me this would be the reality three months ago,” he said.

Gabbay stressed that Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi’s instructions were to open the embassy as soon as possible in order to start providing consular services, issuing visas and pushing forward business deals.

What’s next: Gabbay told me the goal is to move the embassy to a permanent location by the end of 2021. (Axios)

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Will Netanyahu’s attempt to divide the Arab List succeed?

TEL AVIV: A call by a prominent Arab-Israeli politician for possible political cooperation with Netanyahu threatens to divide the Arab Joint List, Israel’s third-largest political bloc, Afif Abu Much, a columnist for Israel’s Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, writes for Axios.

Why it matters: Netanyahu is trying to divide the Joint List in order to decrease its political power and prevent it from tipping the center left into an electoral majority.

Flashback: Israel’s Arab minority had its highest turnout in history during the previous election amid pushback against Netanyahu’s anti-Arab campaigns, earning the Joint List 15 seats in the Knesset.

Driving the news: In recent months, Mansour Abbas, the leader of the Joint List’s Islamist faction — an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood — opened a backchannel to Netanyahu.

When their communications were exposed, Abbas stressed that he didn’t want to be “in the pocket” of the center left, which was reluctant to rely on the support of the Joint List to form a government after the last elections.

Abbas wants the Joint List to focus on socioeconomic issues that concern its voters, place less emphasis on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and ultimately join a coalition government to get concrete results.

What he’s saying: Abbas said he had no problem cooperating with Netanyahu.

“He is using me, but I am also using him.” — Mansour Abbas on Netanyahu

The state of play: Abbas’ move dramatically raised his public profile, turning him from an anonymous Arab politician to a frequent guest in the television studios.

Abbas received a lot of criticism, but he also changed the political discourse in Israel.

His move created huge tensions inside the Arab Joint List, leading to attacks against Abbas and calls to divide the List ahead of the next elections.

The big picture: The vast majority of Arab voters see Netanyahu in a very negative light as a result of his incitement against the Arab minority and its representatives in the Knesset, whom he called “terror supporters.”

Yes, but: Netanyahu plays a dual game. While publicly attacking the Arab Joint List to rally his base and attack the center left, in private he has always negotiated ad hoc political deals with Arab politicians to ensure his political survival.

What’s next: It is too soon to say if the Arab Joint List is going to divide or not. All of the List’s members remember that when they entered the March 2019 elections divided, the voters punished them with very low turnout. Polls already project the List to lose three or four seats. (Axios)

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Ronna to seek re-election as RNC chair with Trump’s support

WASHINGTON DC: Ronna McDaniel will seek re-election to a third term as chair of the Republican National Committee, AP reports.

McDaniel has the support of President Trump, who wants to keep her in place in order to maintain tight control over party HQ ahead of his likely 2024 presidential run.

In a letter to RNC members, McDaniel also touted the support of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Minority Leader McCarthy, and a supermajority of the organization’s members, “all but assuring her victory,” according to the AP.

Though Trump lost the White House, Republicans over-performed in down-ballot races under McDaniel’s leadership of the party.

McDaniel in the letter said she would beef up the party’s legal efforts surrounding voting and form a committee on election integrity, per AP.

“President Trump earned more minority votes than any Republican candidate in decades, and a record number of women, minorities and veterans were elected to office,” McDaniel wrote.

“This is a legacy our Party can be proud of, and we must continue to build on this historic momentum.” (Axios)