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Israel launches spy satellite to keep a better eye on enemies

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(Last Updated On: July 6, 2020)

Israel on Monday (July 6) launched a new spy satellite that it said would provide high-quality surveillance for its military intelligence.

Israel has been building up its surveillance capabilities to monitor enemies such as Iran, whose nuclear program it sees as a major threat.

The satellite, called Ofek 16, was shot into space early Monday morning from a site in central Israel by a locally-developed Shavit rocket, which was used to launch previous Ofek satellites.

“We will continue to strengthen and maintain Israel’s capabilities on every front, in every place,” said Defense Minister Benny Gantz.

The Defense Ministry called Ofek 16 “an electro-optical reconnaissance satellite with advanced capabilities.”

The first images will be received in about a week.

State-owned Israel Aerospace Industries was the main contractor for the project and the satellite’s payload was developed by defense firm Elbit Systems.

Source: Reuters

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Traditional grand council of elders set to decide fate of prisoners Friday

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(Last Updated On: August 6, 2020)

A traditional consultative council, or Loya Jirga, will convene in Kabul on Friday to decide the fate of the last 400 Taliban prisoners who have not yet been released in accordance with the US-Taliban Doha agreement. 

The agreement called for the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners and 1,000 government personnel that were being held captive by the Taliban. 

To date, the Taliban has released its captives and the Afghan government has freed over 4,500 Taliban prisoners. 

The last 400 are seen as extremely dangerous by Afghan officials and some Western allies. 

The release of the final 400 has however so far been a major stumbling block in starting peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban and on Sunday President Ashraf Ghani called for a Loya Jirga to resolve the issue. 

This Loya Jirga is made up of a cross-sector of the population and at least 2,000 people – mostly elders, community leaders and senior politicians will attend. 

The Jirga is expected to run over two days and security measures in Kabul have been vastly stepped up. Many busy roads in the city will be closed to normal traffic and thousands of security force members have been deployed to maintain safety.

On Wednesday, the Taliban issued a statement rejecting the Loya Jirga as having no legal status. 

In the statement issued on the group’s website, the Taliban said: “That the Kabul administration has decided to summon a supposed Loya Jirga under the pretext of deciding the fate of 400 prisoners and could possibly use it as a tool against peace and wishes of the nation, hence, convening such a Jirga before reaching comprehensive peace and political settlement can in no way be representative of the people or hold any legal status because the Kabul administration itself is illegitimate.”

But the Loya Jirga will go ahead and the 2,000 participants who will attend are the same elders and political leaders invited to a similar council meeting held last year. 

Ghani’s spokesman, Sediq Sediqqi, said this week that the Jirga will also decide “what kind of peace it wants.”

The Jirga comes even though the government’s health minister, Jawad Osmani, said at a press conference this week that a survey conducted, in collaboration with the World Health Organization, has found at least a third of the country’s population has been infected with COVID-19. This amounts to about 10 million people. 

In addition, the survey found that at least half of Kabul’s population had been infected – despite official figures countrywide being at just under 37,000. 

Meanwhile, AP reported that Ghani’s critics have accused the president of stalling peace negotiations with the Taliban to retain power as president because it is widely speculated that negotiations could seek a neutral interim government. 

Ghani, who has insisted he will finish his five-year term, was elected in controversial presidential polls held last year. He and rival Abdullah Abdullah battled over the results, which Abdullah alleged were deeply flawed.

Washington intervened warning the squabbling leaders to find a political compromise. 

That led to Abdullah being named to head peace efforts as head of a High Council for National Reconciliation.

The Taliban meanwhile have said they are ready to hold negotiations within a week of the final prisoners being released. 

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Taliban torch two fuel tankers, hijack 7 others: sources

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(Last Updated On: August 6, 2020)

Taliban militants torched two fuel tankers on the Baghlan-Samangan highway on Thursday morning, sources confirmed. 

According to sources, the insurgents hijacked seven other fuel tankers and took them to Dand-e-Ghori in Pul-e-Khumri, the capital of Baghlan province.

Motorists who had been traveling on the highway told Ariana News that the road had been closed to traffic for four hours due to clashes between the Afghan security forces and the Taliban insurgents.

Sources told Ariana News that the Taliban took the trucks to Dand-e-Ghori, saying that they then emptied the fuel from the tankers and sold it off for 20 AFN per liter in the area.

Local officials have not yet commented. 

This latest incident comes amid rising insecurity along the highway in recent days.

On Wednesday, at least 12 bodyguards of Mahbubullah Ghafari, a former member of the provincial council of Baghlan, were killed in a roadside mine explosion.

The incident took place in the Chashmaye Shir area on the Baghlan-Samangan road after a vehicle hit a mine on Wednesday morning.

Baghlan police confirmed the incident but further information has not yet been released. 

The Taliban have also not commented on the incidents.

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Denying Taliban an ‘honorable option’ earlier was a failure, says Atmar

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(Last Updated On: August 6, 2020)

Afghanistan’s acting foreign minister Haneef Atmar said this week that over the past 19 years, one of Afghanistan’s biggest failures had been to not think about reconciliation earlier and not give the Taliban an “honorable option”. 

Speaking to the US’s former National Security Advisor in a Hoover Institution video interview, Atmar said the “number one issue was not to think about reconciliation early on and to give an option to the Taliban,” he said adding they “wanted to have an honorable option”. 

“Collectively we failed to give them an option of an honorable reconciliation and sometimes we drove them away from Afghanistan. That was a bad policy,” he said adding “it wasn’t a good choice”.

The discussion, on America’s longest war, centered around the situation over the past 19 years and the end result of peace that both the US and Afghanistan have been working towards. 

Atmar in his discussion was adamant about ridding Afghanistan of terrorists and said if the country allowed space for terrorists to take root, the likes of 9/11 could happen again. 

He said anyone who thinks terrorism can be ignored, needs to think again. 

He pointed out that after the fall of the old Soviet Union, the United States felt there was no longer a threat in Afghanistan – but they were wrong, he said. 

“That mistake, that error, should not be repeated again,” he stated.

 Atmar pointed out that Afghanistan was not just fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan but it was also fighting other terror organizations.

There are four groups of transnational terror networks, he said adding there are those that are Afghans, regional terrorists, Pakistan terrorists and international terrorists such as al-Qaeda and Daesh. 

“They all have symbiotic relationships. Not only among themselves but also with transnational organized criminal networks and they benefit from narcotics, and they benefit from organized crime,” he said. 

“They collectively pose a national security threat – collectively to the region and to the world community.”

He said it is a shared responsibility to not get “tired” of fighting terrorism adding that with continued assistance from the international community Afghanistan believes it will succeed. 

“To sum it up, I strongly believe we have a noble reason to continue to stay engaged and continue to protect our people.” 

According to him, disengagement from fighting terrorism would not work but instead “benefit the enemy”. 

He said from his side he could point towards five things that went wrong over the past 19 years. 

He said these failures were related to politics and not to the hard work “of our brave men and women in uniform.”

Atmar stated that the “number one issue was not to think about reconciliation early on and to give an option to the Taliban.” 

The second failure was attributed to Afghanistan’s policies and to not “address the problem of sanctuaries outside Afghanistan, so while the Taliban were driven away from Afghanistan they were also given sanctuary outside Afghanistan and we were never able to this day to address that sanctuary problem outside Afghanistan.”

The third failure was on the Afghan side, he said – “we failed to build the kind of state and governance that the Afghan people deserved”. 

He said corruption and state failure on many fronts were significant and that these were failures that reduced the effectiveness of the combined efforts of the Afghans and the international community. 

Security forces could also meanwhile have been grown to the full extent of their capabilities especially with regards to the type of counter-terrorism Afghanistan is faced with, he stated. 

“We could have done more to develop the Afghan army’s capabilities,” including the development of close air support – which he highlighted. 

The final flaw in Afghanistan’s strategy was losing regional consensus in counter-terrorism efforts, Atmar told McMaster. 

He said until 2006 there had been a great deal of regional and international support but slowly that consensus weakened. This was affected by international issues outside of Afghanistan’s control, including relations between other countries. 

But learning from this, the best way forward is “number one, peace between the Afghan people and the Taliban, the Afghan government and the Taliban,” he said. 

Also “preserving what we have built over the past 19 years and further developing it. Essentially it’s about the preservation of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan that is defined by our commitment to human rights, women’s rights, good governance, political inclusion of our people, rule of law, and all those critical values that modern humanity requires for its functioning.”

Atmar emphasized that “we should not lose them as a result of the peace process. 

“No peace will be lasting if it’s not built on that foundation. 

He said the partnership between the United States and Afghanistan was critical in terms of achieving the end state of peace.

But given ongoing issues regarding Pakistan’s antics towards Afghanistan and rumored claims of bounties by the Russian’s, McMaster asked Atmar what would it take to get regional countries to actually support the country’s peace efforts and recognize that defeating terrorism was also in their interests.

Atmar stated that regional countries along with Afghanistan need to build consensus on their common interests. 

National and security interests have to be the foundation within the region and neighboring countries’ inclusion in the peace process is also needed, he said. 

Asked about intra-Afghan talks, Atmar told McMaster that one key objective with peace is to achieve an end state of Afghanistan not becoming a safe haven for international terrorists.

He also said that agreements made have to be acceptable to the Afghan people and to the region as a whole. 

On what an end state actually meant, Atmar said it was for a sovereign, democratic Afghanistan committed to human and women’s rights along with other important values. 

He said killing people under any pretext is not acceptable and to date, the Taliban has argued that it’s continued violence is based on the US’s presence in the country. 

He said the Taliban need to stop the violence and although they are no longer fighting the US, they are fighting the Afghan security forces. He said there was no justification for this. 

On how intra-Afghan talks would proceed, he said they would be led by a team of 21 people, including women and key would be to discuss a humanitarian ceasefire. 

Atmar stated that currently, the people of Afghanistan are dealing with a double-edged sword – COVID-19 and the Taliban. 

Included in intra-Afghan talks would be the topic of an end state in terms of what Afghanistan wants to achieve as well as the reintegration of refugees and Taliban fighters. 

He also said that other terrorist groups need to leave Afghanistan and that peace talks only relate to the Taliban.

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