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International

The downside: US strike shows Afghanistan still terror base

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By Aamer Madhani, Zeke Miller, Nomaan Merchant And Lolita C. Baldor in Washington

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Biden administration is holding out the CIA operation that killed al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri as a monumental strike against the global terror network responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks of 2001. But there’s a downside, too.

The drone strike also is putting into stark relief the mounting evidence that after 20 years of America’s military presence — and then sudden departure — Afghanistan has once again become an active staging ground for Islamic terror groups looking to attack the West.

The operation, carried out over the weekend after at least six months spent monitoring movements by al-Zawahri and his family, came just weeks before the one-year anniversary of the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from the country.

The Biden administration is making the case that the operation shows Americans at home and allies abroad that the United States hasn’t lost focus — or the ability to strike terrorists in the region — and validates its decision to end two decades of fighting in Afghanistan with its withdrawal.

Announcing the strike from the White House, President Joe Biden said Monday night that “justice” had been exacted on a leader who in recent weeks had recorded videos calling for his followers to attack the United States and allies. And the White House on Tuesday framed the operation was an enormous counterterrorism win.

“The president has made good on his word when we left. He said the United States did not need to keep sending thousands of American men and women to fight and die in Afghanistan,” White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said on NBC’s “Today” show. “After 20 years of war to keep this country safe, he said we would be able to continue to target and take out terrorists in Afghanistan without troops on the ground.”

But as details of the operation continue to emerge, the administration has also revealed troubling evidence of al-Qaida’s presence and of the Taliban once again offering refuge to the group that was behind the 9/11 attacks on the United States.

White House officials believe that senior members of the Haqqani Network, an Islamist terror group with strong ties to the Taliban, were aware that al-Zawahri was in Kabul. Sullivan said that while al-Zawahri wasn’t involved in day-to-day planning at the time of his killing, he continued to play an active role in directing al-Qaida and posed “a severe threat” against the U.S. and American citizens.

Concerns about al-Qaida efforts to regroup inside Taliban-controlled Afghanistan are hardly new.

Before the strike, U.S. military officials, including Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had said al-Qaida was trying to reconstitute in Afghanistan, where it faces limited threats from the now-ruling Taliban. Military leaders have warned that the group still aspired to attack the U.S.

Al-Qaida leadership has reportedly played an advisory role since the Taliban returned to power in the leadup up to the U.S. withdrawal, according to a U.N. Security Council report last month.

The U.N. report also noted that ISIS-K — the group that carried out a massive attack that killed 13 U.S. troops and dozens of Afghans near the Kabul International Airport just days before the U.S. completed its withdrawal last year — has become increasingly active in northern and eastern Afghanistan. That’s a worry for the West though ISIS-K and the Taliban espouse different ideologies and interests, with ISIS-K carrying out a bloody insurgency against the Taliban and religious minorities across Afghanistan.

“Zawahri’s presence in post-withdrawal Afghanistan suggests that, as feared, the Taliban is once more granting safe haven to the leaders of al-Qaida – a group with which it has never broken,” said Nathan Sales, ambassador-at-large and coordinator for counterterrorism during the Trump administration who is now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

Frank McKenzie, the retired Marine general who until earlier this year was the top American military officer in the Middle East, said the U.S. has seen an effort by al-Qaida to restore training camps in Afghanistan.

“I see nothing happening in Afghanistan now that tells me that the Taliban are determined to prevent that from happening,” he said in an interview.

Since the American troop withdrawal, U.S. military leaders have said America’s ability to monitor and strike a target in the country would be difficult but not impossible.

The strike on Zawahri proved both, said McKenzie, who is now executive director of the Global and National Security Institute at the University of South Florida. “If it’s a national priority, we can certainly do that. It requires tremendous effort.”

He cautioned not to draw broad conclusions from this one drone strike.

“This was a unique circumstance,” he said. “You had a target that didn’t move, and they had the opportunity to get a good look at pattern of life. That’s not always going to be the case. In fact, typically, that is not the case.”

That al-Zawahri was living in a Kabul neighborhood and not in rural Afghanistan as previously believed, “tells you that he got really comfortable” under the protection of the Taliban, said Colin Clarke, director of research at The Soufan Group, a global intelligence and security firm.

“These entities work hand in glove,” Clarke said of the Taliban and al-Qaida. “There’s not the separation that others would have you believe.”

The Taliban had promised in the 2020 Doha Agreement on the terms of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan that they would not harbor al-Qaida members or those seeking to attack the U.S.

The Taliban were quick to condemn the U.S. strike as a “a clear violation of international principles and the Doha Agreement,” though they did not acknowledge that al-Zawahri was killed. The U.S. gave no forewarning to the Taliban government, which the United States does not recognize, that it was carrying out the operation.

“Such actions are a repetition of the failed experiences of the past 20 years and are against the interests of the United States of America, Afghanistan, and the region,” the Taliban statement said.

White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby declined to comment on how, or if, the U.S. would hold the Taliban responsible for sheltering al-Zawahri.

“The Taliban have a choice now,” Kirby said. “And that is they can comply with their agreement under the Doha agreement … or they can choose to be going down a different path. And if they go down a different path, it’s going to lead to consequences not just from the United States but from the international community.”

Kirby said the U.S. had already engaged with the Taliban about al-Zawahri’s presence following Sunday’s strike.

The Taliban remain sanctioned by the U.S. government for its role harboring al-Qaida before the 9/11 attacks. After the collapse of the U.S.-backed government in Kabul last summer, the Biden administration froze billions of dollars in assets belonging to Afghanistan’s central bank to prevent the assets from falling under Taliban control. Some of that money has since been freed for humanitarian aid to address the country’s dire hunger crisis.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell was quick to congratulate Biden on the operation, but also made the case that it “further indicates that Afghanistan is again becoming a major thicket of terrorist activity following the president’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces.”

“Killing al-Zawahri is a success, but the underlying resurgence of al-Qaida terrorists into Afghanistan is a growing threat that was foreseeable and avoidable,” McConnell said. “The administration needs a comprehensive plan to rebuild our capacity to combat it.”

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Hurricane Ian nears Florida landfall with 155 mph winds

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By Curt Anderson in St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla., (AP) — Hurricane Ian’s most damaging winds began hitting Florida’s southwest coast Wednesday, lashing the state with heavy rain and pushing a devastating storm surge after strengthening to the threshold of the most dangerous Category 5 status.

Fueled by warm waters in the Gulf of Mexico, Ian grew to a catastrophic Category 4 hurricane overnight with top winds of 155 mph (250 kph), according to the National Hurricane Center. The storm trudged on a track to make landfall north of the heavily populated Fort Myers area, which forecasters said could be inundated by a storm surge of up to 18 feet (5.5 meters).

“This is going to be a nasty nasty day, two days,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said early Wednesday, stressing that people in Ian’s path along the coast should rush to the safest possible shelter and stay there.

Ian’s center was about 50 miles (80 kilometers) west of Naples at 10 a.m. Wednesday, as it churned toward toward the coast at 9 mph (15 kph). Ian’s plodding pace meant the storm was expected to spend a day or more crawling across the Florida peninsula, dumping flooding rains of 12 to 18 inches (30 to 45 centimeters) across a broad area including Tampa, Orlando and Jacksonville in the state’s northeast corner.

Catastrophic storm surges could push 12 to (3.6 meters) of water or more across more than 250 miles (400 kilometers) of coastline, from Bonita Beach to Englewood, the hurricane center warned.

“It’s going to get a lot worse very quickly. So please hunker down,” DeSantis said.

Off the coast on Sanibel Island near Fort Myers, swirling water covered residential streets and was halfway up mailbox posts by mid-morning. Seawater rushed out of Tampa Bay, leaving parts of the muddy bottom exposed, and waves crashed over the end of a wooden pier at Naples

More than 2.5 million people were under mandatory evacuation orders, but by law no one could be forced to flee. The governor said the state has 30,000 linemen, urban search and rescue teams, and 7,000 National Guard troops from Florida and elsewhere ready to help once the weather clears.

Florida residents rushed ahead of the impact to board up their homes, stash precious belongings on upper floors and join long lines of cars leaving the shore.

Some chose to stay and ride out the storm. Jared Lewis, a Tampa delivery driver, said his home has withstood hurricanes in the past, though not as powerful as Ian.

“It is kind of scary, makes you a bit anxious,” Lewis said. “After the last year of not having any, now you go to a Category 4 or 5. We are more used to the 2s and 3s.”

Forecasters predicted Ian would make landfall more than 100 miles (160 kilometers) south of Tampa and St. Petersberg, likely sparing the densely populated Tampa Bay area from its first direct hit by a major hurricane since 1921.

Officials warned Tampa residents that they still faced threats from powerful winds and up to 20 inches (50 centimeters) of rain.

“Please, please, please be aware that we are not out of danger yet,” Tampa Mayor Jane Castor said in a video on Twitter. “Flooding is still going to occur.”

During the night, Ian went through a natural cycle when it lost its old eye and formed a new one. The timing was bad for the Florida coast, because the storm got stronger and larger — 120 mph (193 kph) to 155 mph (250 kph) — with landfall just a few hours away.

The size of the storm also grew, with tropical storm force winds extending 175 miles (280 kilometers) from the hurricane’s center.

“With the higher intensity you’re going to see more extensive wind damage,” University of Miami hurricane researcher Brian McNoldy said. “The larger wind field means that more people will experience those storm-force winds.”

The most damaging winds could hit a coastline where the population has jumped sevenfold since 1970, according to the U.S. Census. Authorities worried that many residents would ignore orders to evacuate.

Vinod Nair wasn’t taking any chances. He drove inland from the Tampa area Tuesday with his wife, son, dog and two kittens to a hotel in Orlando, where only tropical storm force winds were expected.

“You can’t do anything about natural disasters,” Nair said. “We live in a high-risk zone, so we thought it best to evacuate.”

Ash Dugney warily watched ocean water being sucked out below a Tampa Bay pier Wednesday morning. He said he didn’t trust Tampa’s storm drainage system to keep his corner tuxedo rental business safe from flooding that he said happened in his neighborhood even during mild storms.

“I don’t care about the wind and the rain and the stuff like that, I just care about the flooding,” Dugney said, adding that he moved essentials out of the shop and moved other items up to above waist-high level.

Flash floods were possible across all of Florida. Hazards include the polluted leftovers of Florida’s phosphate fertilizer mining industry, more than 1 billion tons of slightly radioactive wastecontained in enormous ponds that could overflow in heavy rains.

Forecasters placed roughly 120 miles (193 kilometers) of central Florida’s east coast under a hurricane warning Wednesday, signaling that Ian may remain a hurricane longer than previously expected as it moves inland.

Isolated tornadoes were spinning off the storm well ahead of landfall. One tornado damaged small planes and a hangar at the North Perry Airport, west of Hollywood along the Atlantic coast.

More than 190,000 homes and businesses were without electricity, and Florida Power and Light warned those in Ian’s path to brace for days without power.

Parts of Georgia and South Carolina also could see flooding rains and some coastal surge into Saturday. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp preemptively declared an emergency, ordering 500 National Guard troops onto standby.

Before turning toward Florida, Ian battered Cuba and brought down the country’s electrical grid, blacking out the entire island. It also caused destruction in Cuba’s world-famous tobacco belt. No deaths were reported.

___

Associated Press contributors include Christina Mesquita in Havana, Cuba; Cody Jackson and Adriana Gomez Licon in Tampa, Florida; Freida Frisaro in Miami; Anthony Izaguirre in Tallahassee, Florida; Mike Schneider in Orlando, Florida; Seth Borenstein in Washington; Bobby Caina Calvan in New York and Jay Reeves in Birmingham, Alabama.

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UN food chief warns Horn of Africa famine imminent, if global crises left unchecked

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By Dylan Robertson in Ottawa

The head of the World Food Program is urging countries to follow Canada in trying to avert a looming famine in East Africa, which he warns could get even worse due to sanctions against Russia.

David Beasley, the American who leads the United Nations agency, said the number of people in acute need of food has multiplied by four since 2017.

“The world is in a very fragile state. We can’t, in my opinion, take much more,” he said in an interview.

“If we have a massive earthquake, or a volcano, or something in the next six months? Holy mackerel, all the fire trucks are out.”

His gravest concern is for the Horn of Africa, a region that spans all of Somalia and large swaths of Ethiopia and Kenya. The past five consecutive growing seasons have all had a drought, and armed conflict has emboldened some militias to withhold access to food.

On a visit to the region last month, Beasley was taken aback to learn that food aid is now reaching farmers and ranchers, he said. Before, they occasionally got equipment to help with farming, but they hardly ever needed actual food.

“The amount of dead animals that I saw was extraordinary,” he said. “The Horn of Africa is a picture-perfect scenario of a catastrophe.”

Beasley started his job in March 2017, overseeing an organization that provides everything from school meals to farming machines to the world’s poorest.

At that time, 80 million people were in acute food insecurity, meaning they are either malnourished or cutting back on essentials to feed themselves.

That number rose to 135 million by the time the COVID-19 pandemic started in early 2020, due to wars and climate change.

At the start of this year, 276 million people were in need, in part due to supply-chain shocks and a drought in Afghanistan, where the Taliban takeover has plunged the country into an economic crisis.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, the number of people in acute need has risen to an unprecedented 345 million.

The invasion has drastically reduced grain exports from Europe’s breadbasket and caused a jump in oil prices, which Beasley said is costing his organization an extra $75 million U.S. each month.

“Right now in our operations, we’re having to take food from hungry children to give to starving children, because of a lack of funding,” he said during a Tuesday visit to Ottawa.

Food prices dropped this year when grain gradually started to leave Ukraine’s main port, Odessa, but they remain the highest in a decade.

Western sanctions on Russia include some exemptions for certain types of food and fertilizer, but Beasley said global powers need to further compromise. If regions that are not facing climate woes don’t receive enough fertilizer, they won’t be able to ramp up their production, he said, and millions will die.

“Regardless of whether you love or hate Russia, you’ve got to get these fertilizers out,” he said.

“We very well could go from a food-pricing problem right now to a food availability problem in 2023, and that’s my grave concern.”

Beasley said Canadian governments under Liberal and Conservative leaders have been “a great voice for food security globally,” as have the U.S., Germany and France.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau cited global food security as a priority going into the United Nations General Assembly last week, but the New York meetings were dominated by news of Russia ramping up its war in Ukraine.

Canada has long been among the top five donors to the World Food Program, with Ottawa pledging US$360 million this year and earmarking funding for future years so officials can plan ahead.

“It’s huge; it’s a godsend. But other countries, like the Gulf states, have got to step up,” he said.

“I’m jumping up and down, trying to get the world leaders to recognize (that) everyone’s got to engage.”

Beasley, the former Republican governor of South Carolina, said people should see development aid as a hedge against more expensive crises.

He said challenges such as COVID-19 and inflation have the developed world questioning the virtue of helping foreigners, but he argued that not intervening will drive conflict and mass migration that will only end up being more expensive for the west.

“I’ve seen it first hand; it will cost a thousand times more if we don’t go down and help people where they are.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 28, 2022.

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