Jumaat, 20 September 2013

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The Star Online: World Updates

U.S. general sees problems, progress in developing Afghan air force


NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland (Reuters) - The U.S.-led effort to train the Afghan air force faces big challenges ranging from security threats to possible repercussions from procurement scandals that have triggered a review of infrastructure and equipment projects, the U.S. general in charge said.

"This is a hard deal. We're far from 100-percent guaranteed on delivery," said Air Force Brigadier General John Michel, who leads NATO Air Training Command Afghanistan, which is due to complete its training of the Afghan air force by December 31, 2017 - three years after most U.S. forces leave Afghanistan.

The one-star general cited progress in training and planning for Afghanistan to assume control over the air force but said many factors were outside his control.

Michel spoke to Reuters this week during the annual Air Force Association conference here.

He said the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force was re-examining all infrastructure projects after a report that one $37 million (23 million pounds) aviation facility may have been used to store opium.

The Pentagon also has opened a criminal investigation into the Army aviation unit that awarded contracts for maintaining and overhauling Russian-made Mi-17 helicopters.

Michel said Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford, who heads ISAF, was trying to insulate the training command from any fallout from the procurement problems.

"If they downscale some of our infrastructure (and cut aircraft), there's a degrading effect on our capacity," he said. "All of these become impediments to our success while we fight the clock."

Michel, who arrived on the job seven weeks ago, said about 70 percent of the hangars, taxiways and other infrastructure needed to support the air force, which is due to expand to around 8,000 people from 7,000, were completed.

But he said he fears the remaining 30 percent might never get built if problems identified in a recent report by the Special Inspector General For Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) lead to project cancellations.

"You have to have concrete and buildings to operate from," he said.


The training mission is being led by 649 U.S. military advisers, contractors and advisers from other NATO forces. Their ranks will swell to 1,114 over the next two years after four Lockheed Martin Corp C-130 cargo planes and 20 A29 Super Tucano planes built by Sierra Nevada Corp arrive.

A dozen Mi-17 helicopters are also expected in coming weeks, Michel said.

The NATO advisers are helping Afghans develop the skills to operate, maintain, develop budgets for and manage what Michel calls a self-sustaining, "small but mighty" air force.

Afghani pilots will be trained to carry out missions, respond to natural disasters, and evacuate casualties in a mountainous country that still lacks roads and other forms transportation.

One of the biggest challenges has been ensuring that about half the force learns English, Michel said, noting that recruiting was difficult in a country where literacy in native languages was at just 31 percent.

Michel's unit now runs seven English courses, serving about 420 students at any given time.

Security at six training sites in Afghanistan is another worry, with attacks or threats setting back training efforts and forcing trainers to reinforce security, he said.

"The more we have to do those kind of (security) missions, the more we have to degrade training," he said.

A longer-term concern is whether the Afghan military can afford the estimated $600 million to $620 million a year it will cost to run the air force.

That question, Michel says, could have big implications for the training effort, and is being debated by Dunford, the Marine Corps general, and Afghan leaders.

"We're going to consume 15 to 20 percent of their budget. We need to know today if that's sustainable," Michel said.

Despite the challenges, he said the Afghan air force was flourishing in many respects.

A casualty evacuation that once took three days can now be executed in three to four hours, and Afghan pilots recently evacuated 300 villagers threatened by major flooding, Michel said.

The air force is also laying the groundwork for the emergence of an Afghan aviation sector and the related infrastructure that will help Afghanistan attract foreign investment, he said.

"Aviation opens you to the world," Michel said. "It seeds the investment that Afghanistan is going to need to really flourish going forward."

(This story corrects the number of stars for the general in the third paragraph)

North Korea postpones inter-Korean family reunions, accuses Seoul of confrontation


SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea on Saturday ordered the indefinite postponement of a scheduled series of reunions for families divided since the Korean War, dealing a setback to months of efforts to improve relations between the neighbours.

The six-day meetings of families torn apart by the 1950-53 war had been due to start on Wednesday in the Mount Kumgang resort just north of the militarised border.

They had been seen as an element in furthering months of thaw in chilled relations compounded by the North's refusal to abandon its nuclear programme, described as its "treasured sword".

The North's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea, in a statement carried by KCNA news agency, accused the South of poisoning dialogue. It said it could never tolerate Seoul misusing such dialogue to heighten conflicts.

"The reunions of separated families and relatives between the North and the South will be postponed until there can be a normal atmosphere where dialogue and negotiations can be held," said a spokesman for the committee, which oversees ties with South Korea.

The planned family reunions would have been the first in nearly three years.

The North's abrupt postponement came amid an easing of tensions. The two sides this week reopened a shuttered jointly-run industrial complex just inside the North, shut down by Pyongyong authorities during weeks of high tension in April.

North Korea issued daily threats to engulf both South Korea and its ally, the United States, in a nuclear war in response to new U.N. sanctions against Pyongyang.

The Security Council adopted the punitive measures in response to the North's third nuclear test in February.

But tensions have since waned, although a U.S. research institute and a U.S. official this month said that satellite imagery suggested North Korea had restarted a research reactor at its Yongbyon nuclear complex.

(This story refiles to adjust headline)

(Reporting by Jack Kim and Jane Chung; Editing by Ron Popeski)

U.S. House taunts Democrats with anti-Obamacare spending bill


WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A familiar Washington melodrama - will they or won't they shut down the government - took centre stage on Friday when the Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed a bill to fund the government, but only if President Barack Obama's landmark healthcare law is ransacked.

Notching their 42nd vote against "Obamacare" and knowing full well the Democratic Senate will reject it, Republicans in the House cast their votes, staged a noisy celebration in front of a placard declaring: "SenateMustAct," and then left town for several days to give time for the Senate to demolish its work.

"The Senate will not pass any bill that defunds or delays Obamacare," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said flatly.

Later on Friday, Obama called House Speaker John Boehner, to reiterate he would not negotiate on another bill that will soon be before Congress: one to increase U.S. borrowing authority, which is rapidly approaching its $16.7 trillion limit.

House Republicans said they were considering a series of controversial initiatives to attach to that bill, which likely prompted Obama's phone call.

A White House official said Obama told Boehner in the call that the American people had worked long and hard to dig the country out of the financial crisis and the last thing they needed was another politically motivated, self-inflicted wound.

Obama, who would veto any bill that stripped funds from his healthcare law, hit the road too, as he has in past fiscal showdowns. "They're not focused on you," he said of the Republicans as he spoke at a Ford plant in Liberty, Missouri. "They're focused on politics. They're focused on how to mess with me."

Jeff Wright, a United Auto Workers officer waiting for Obama, commented, "They're completely dysfunctional."

If both houses fail to pass a bill funding the government, it could shut down on October 1, although most Capitol Hill observers doubt it will come to that.

Without prompt agreement in Congress on a new funding bill, agencies including the FBI, Education Department, Defence Department and Environmental Protection Agency would have to curtail many non-essential operations on October 1, the first day of the new fiscal year.


The Republican manoeuvre seemed equally designed to get members of Congress in both houses on the record on Obamacare in the run-up to the 2014 congressional elections.

After the vote on Friday, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor called out the names of potentially vulnerable Senate Democrats who will now be confronted with casting a vote on an issue Republicans see as a winner for them.

But even some Republicans, particularly in the Senate, have been dismissive of their House colleagues' tactics, calling them futile.

They were joined on Thursday by New York Republican Representative Peter King, who told CNN that the party was "carrying out a fraud with the people by somehow implying or even saying that this strategy is going to win."

He then voted in favour of the funding bill, complete with the Obamacare provision.

Representative Scott Rigell of Virginia, the lone Republican to vote against the House bill, was accused of a "betrayal" by the politically conservative advocacy group, Americans for Limited Government. The group's president, Nathan Mehrens, said Rigell "now owns it every bit as much as if he had voted for Obamacare's passage."

Rigell, who represents a district with a heavy military presence, defended his stance. He said the spending bill failed to address the steep automatic spending cuts on defence programs.

The measure passed on Friday on a largely partisan vote of 230-189. Only two centrist Democrats, Representatives Jim Matheson of Utah and Mike McIntyre of North Carolina, voted for the bill.

As Republicans celebrated its passage with a "rally" in the Capitol, some senior members of the party confided to Reuters that their leaders appeared to have no plan on how to both please conservatives, who push for smaller government, and ultimately get legislation enacted into law.

Asked what Boehner would do if the Senate, as expected, removes the Obamacare provision and sends a bill back to the House that simply continues government programs at their current rate of spending, one House Republican said: "We don't know what they (leadership) would do. ... I don't think they know what they would do."


Against that backdrop, the debate over Obamacare and government spending raged on the House floor with neither Republicans nor Democrats showing any sign of compromise.

"Let's defund this law now and protect the American people from the economic calamity that we know Obamacare will create," Cantor said as he argued that employers were cutting back on their workers' hours in order to skirt requirements of the healthcare law.

Cantor's counterpart, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, shot back at Republicans: "You know what that's about? That's simply about putting their friends, the insurance companies back in charge of medical decisions for your families."

Pelosi also called the bill "a wolf in wolf's clothing."

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers urged quick passage of the bill that he said "is absolutely necessary to keep the lights on" at government agencies.

Republican Representative Frank Wolf implored, "You can't shut down the federal prison system, FBI counterterrorism activities," weather forecasting and NASA space exploration.

Government spending was not the only cloud hovering over the Capitol.

Sometime in October or early November, the U.S. Treasury will hit its $16.7 trillion limit on borrowing. Without legislation to raise the "statutory debt ceiling," the United States, for the first time, would default on loans from bondholders such as the Chinese government.

Here again, House Republicans were in disarray as conservatives pressed to attach the destruction of Obamacare and other pet initiatives to a debt limit measure.

Veteran Representative Pete Sessions was swarmed by reporters as he left a closed-door meeting of his fellow Republicans.

Asked what would be attached to a debt limit bill that is supposed to come to the House floor next week, Sessions said: "What we're trying to do is come together as a team to understand what all might be in that. When we do that, we'll have an idea what we're going to do. There are options and ideas and potentials."

Sessions declined to elaborate.

(Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton and Steve Holland; Editing by Grant McCool, Fred Barbash and Peter Cooney)

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