Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Cody M. Poplin, Benjamin Bissell
Tuesday, September 30, 2014, 3:08 PM

One day after the inauguration of Ashraf Ghani as president of Afghanistan, the United States and Afghanistan signed a Bilateral Security Agreement allowing for 9,800 residual U.S. troops to train, equip, and advise the Afghan military and police forces. The Washington Post has more on the agreement, which many commentators consider a linchpin towards ensuring Afghanistan does not slide back into chaos.

Speaking of a slide into chaos, we now turn to Iraq: Kurdish forces have launched offensives on three fronts against the Islamic State in northern Iraq. According to al Arabiya, a senior member of the Kurdish Peshmerga reported that troops had entered and taken control of the town of Rabia, after taking the two smaller villages earlier. Kurdish forces are also in the midst of offensives in Zumar, and further south in villages around the town of Daquq.

Reuters also covers the offensive, corroborating that Kurdish forces had indeed recaptured Rabia, an important strategic point for crossing the border with Syria. A Kurdish political source was quoted as saying, “It's the most important strategic point for crossing. Once that's taken it's going to cut the supply route and make the operation to reach Sinjar easier.”

Peshmerga secretary-general Jabbar Yawar estimates that the Iraqi Kurds have now retaken almost half of the territory they lost to the Islamic State in the early August offensive that led to U.S. airstrikes.

Those may also be yielding some success in “degrading” ISIS’s capabilities; the Washington Post reports that militants are now traveling in groups less often and are moving less freely than before, significantly limiting their operational capabilities. This, in contrast to the long columns of vehicles that would amass before attacking targets before U.S. and allied intervention.

While the United States has been targeting the Islamic State’s oil revenues, Reuters provides a glimpse into yet another source of income and power for the group: wheat. The United Nations now estimates that land under ISIS control accounts for as much as 40 percent of Iraq’s annual production of wheat. The practice of seizing lands presents a much more complex threat than al Qaeda, which as Reuters notes, for most of its existence has focused on hit-and-run attacks.

Elsewhere, Reuters writes that reports of civilian casualties from U.S.-led airstrikes in Syria may prompt a backlash against the moderate rebel groups the United States aims to support. On the flip side, the rebels themselves worry that the Assad-regime may be the ultimate beneficiary of the strikes. One member of a Free Syrian Army-affiliated group said that if his group were to move now, the advances would be “like we’re cooking the meal for the regime to eat in the end.”

The Daily Beast notes that the White House’s reluctance to target Assad has left many rebel groups, who consider Assad and not ISIS to be their main enemy, uncertain as to the U.S.’s intentions.

The Washington Post has an update on the ongoing siege of Kobane by ISIS militants, where today, Turkey added new security to its border in an effort to control the mass numbers of refugees flooding into the country. The siege has caused more than 160,000 refugees to flee into Turkey.

Iran will give a military grant to the Lebanese Army in order to help the country prevent Sunni Muslim fighters from crossing the border from Syria. The announcement included no information as to what kind of weapons Iran would be providing. Reuters has more.

ISIS militants have released a video of British journalist and hostage John Cantlie.  The latter delivers a scripted message mocking U.S. strategy in the country, and calls the current force an “under-construction army.” The BBC has more on the specific messages in the video.

The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments is out with a new report estimating the cost of operations against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. They estimate the total cost of operations, as of September 24th, as being between $780 million and $930 million. They further note that the total cost will depend on the nature and length of U.S. involvement, but that a low-intensity campaign like the one currently envisioned could cost between $2.4 and $3.8 billion per year. You can read the full report here.

In Foreign Policy, Colum Lynch and Elias Groll write that Obama’s U.N. foreign fighters resolution could be a gift to the world’s most repressive police states, providing them powerful new tools to crack down on groups they label as terrorists.

“Some of us were pushing the reporting, but the White House just didn’t pay attention to it[.]” That quote comes from an unnamed senior American intelligence official; in the New York Times, Peter Baker and Eric Schmitt write on the many missteps in assessing the ISIS threat, while Shane Harris in Foreign Policy notes that many of the nation’s spies feel that the president threw them under the bus when he appeared on 60 Minutes saying the intelligence community “underestimated” the rise of ISIS. The Wall Street Journal reports that the White House has scrambled to clarify the president’s remarks, stating, "ultimately, the president's commander in chief and he's the one who takes responsibility."

The “Umbrella Revolution,” the new name for the student-led demonstrations rocking Hong Kong right now, continues to paralyze the global financial center’s traffic arteries and downtown. Foreign Policy has a slideshow with some of the most arresting images to come out of the instability there.

Hong Kong’s leader, the Beijing-picked Leung Chun-ying, called on the main groups organizing the protests to stop demonstrating and return home “immediately.” According to the New York Times, there has been no sign from the semi-autonomous territory’s leadership that any compromise would be made with the protestors, who are demanding that the local government and Beijing scrap a rule that would restrict the public’s ability to choose candidates for the city’s highest office in 2017.

The Guardian reports that the leaders of the protest movements rejected the warning, threatening to escalate their campaign if Leung Chun-ying does not personally meet with them by midnight on Tuesday.

The Washington Post writes that both sides are attempting to sway the silent majority in Hong Kong to join their cause and lend heft to their demands. Government officials have characterized the protests as “illegal assemblies” and warned of the practical damage they will do to the city’s emergency services and to its economic vibrancy and reputation. Protesters, for their part, are reported to be cleaning up trash and establishing food drives and protest shifts to reduce the negative implications of their demonstrations.

In Beijing, the central government is afraid of “democratic contagion,” and its censorship apparatus is in overdrive. According to Foreign Policy, on Weibo, the popular microblogging platform in China, censors just had “their biggest day of the year.” In response to images and videos showing Hong Kong police employing tear gas against demonstrators, which spread widely across global social media, China banned Instagram and censored 152 posts per 10,000, double the rate that was recorded on June 4th, the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen student movement.

Still, Beijing’s ability to extinguish the protests in Hong Kong seems surprisingly limited. Despite the PRC state’s massive censorship capabilities, and economic and military heft, an effort by Beijing to bring the “mature, prosperous enclave,” into line through tried-and-true mainland tactics would almost “certainly backfire, especially under the glare of international attention.” The New York Times quotes Xiao Shu, a mainland writer currently working in Taiwan:

On the mainland, as long as you can control the streets with enough soldiers and guns, you can kill a protest, because everywhere else is already controlled: the press, the Internet, the schools, every neighborhood and every community. In Hong Kong, the streets are not the only battlefield, like on the mainland.

So what can Beijing do in response to these protests without losing face or stirring up even more protests down the road, across the country? Al Jazeera presents some ideas.

Finally, for a detailed briefing on why these protests are important, how they erupted, and who the key players are, check out Ishan Tharoor’s recent piece at the Washington Post. She there contextualizes the instability in Hong Kong.

At the UN General Assembly yesterday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged the international community to not lose sight of the most dangerous player in the Middle East region: not ISIS, but Iran. The keystone of his 34-minute speech? This line: “to defeat ISIS and leave Iran as a threshold nuclear power is to win the battle and lose the war.” Netanyahu also mentioned the growing collaboration between Israel and moderate Arab states on common goals, such as defeating ISIS and containing Iran, and suggested improved bilateral relations on that front could make a peace deal with the Palestinians more probable in the long-term. A video and text of his speech can be found here, courtesy of the Jerusalem Post.

Despite giving an earlier, controversial speech at the same podium where he accused the Israeli government of engaging in “genocide” against the Palestinian people, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is reportedly ready for an “historic compromise.” The comments came from his spokesman, Nabil Abu Rudeineh, shortly after Netanyahu’s speech. The Times of Israel has more.

The Times of Israel also reports that Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon yesterday ruled out an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, saying that in the wake of the Gaza war, such a move would be dangerous for Israel and likely “deadly” for Jordan.

In addition to meeting with US President Barack Obama on October 1st, Netanyahu also met with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the sidelines of the UNGA summit. Here is a video of the bilateral meeting, the first in 10 years between an Israeli and Indian head of state. India has become one of Israel’s most important trading partners, with Israel now being one of India’s largest suppliers of military weapons. Modi and his Foreign Minister, Sushma Swaraj, are widely viewed as being more pro-Israel than previous Indian administrations; Swaraj was chairwoman of the Indo-Israel Parliamentary Friendship Group from 2006 to 2009, and Modi visited Israel himself in 2006 when he was head of Gujarat. The Times of Israel also reports that Israel invited India to participate in a joint effort on cybersecurity.

The Washington Post covers the topics US President Barack Obama’s meeting with Modi is likely to cover as the heads of the two largest democracies attempt to “revive” their “stagnant” bilateral relationship.

In what is meant to end weeks of speculation about Kim Jong Un’s ailing health, North Korean officials are now reporting that the leader of the embattled country was temporarily incapacitated because of ankle surgery. The Post has more.

According to the Spanish premier, a vote for Catalonian independence from Madrid “will not go ahead.” The New York Times reports that Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy made the comments on Monday, saying such a vote violates the country’s constitution and would be rejected by Spain’s Constitutional Court. The Court ruled later on Monday to suspend the decree signed by Catalonia’s leader authorizing the vote, “pending a final ruling on its validity.”

In a historical twist of fate, the thing holding Germany back from fulfilling its “global role” may be its military. Alison Smale of the New York Times reports.

The Times’ Sinosphere blog profiles an Australian Broadcasting Corporation television report, entitled, “Crackdown,” which explores the kafkaesque ways the Chinese government attempts to silence foreign reporting in Xinjiang.

An innocent business deal, or an attempt by the Chinese Communist Party to stake out a permanent foothold in the Arctic? The New York Times reports on a land sale in Norway that is raising fears about the “Arctic ambitions of a Chinese real estate tycoon with deep pockets.”

At the Huffington Post, Dominique Moisi, a senior adviser at the French Institute for International Relations, wonders whether China and the USA can join together to solidify relative peace for the next century, in much the same way Great Britain and Russia did two hundred years ago.

As the world descends into chaos, where is the US Army? So asks Douglas Macgregor and Young Kim in an article in the Small Wars Journal, where they assert that the Army is “blazing a path backward into the Cold War.”

According to Reuters, the US government recently released documents that suggest it views a 1981 executive order as the basis for most of the NSA’s surveillance activities.

In the latest update in the Adel Bary case, the debate over “whether federal prosecutors...granted too lenient a plea bargain” to the alleged terrorist continued yesterday. Mr. Bary on Friday pleaded guilty to just three counts, which altogether carry a maximum sentence of 25 years, far lower than the 280 counts he originally faced. For his part, Judge Lewis A. Kaplan said that he “would not immediately accept the plea, and raised questions about its wisdom.” The New York Times has more details.

ABC News writes that the Obama administration is frustrated at the sluggish transfer of prisoners from Guantanamo, which has “ground to a halt” due to a slow-moving Pentagon approval process. Sources at the Pentagon say that “they must carefully consider the risks before signing off, given that others have returned to terrorism.”

The Guardian provides an in-depth look into the Grand Forks US air force base, which serves as a command center for Global Hawks surveillance drones.

Speaking of drones, HBO’s John Oliver has a piece on why he thinks US drone strikes are “terrifying.” Rolling Stone has the video, which, of course, contains graphic language.

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