By Shashi Malla
Region West Asia
Afghanistan: U.S. & Taliban Sign Deal Ending Hostilities
The United States signed an agreement with the Taliban militants on Saturday in Doha, Qatar ending hostilities. It is the first step aimed at bringing an end to 18 years of bloodshed in Afghanistan and allowing US troops to return home from America’s ‘never ending’ longest war (AP/Associated Press).
Under the deal, the US would draw its forces down to 8,600 from 13,000 in the next 3 to 4 months, with the remaining US forces leaving in 14 months. The complete pullout would depend on the Taliban meeting their commitments to prevent terrorism. The deal is, therefore, based on commitment and not on a time-line.
Under the agreement, the Taliban promise not to let extremists [al-Qaeda, Islamic State] use the country as a staging ground for attacking the US or its allies. But many former and current US officials and the Afghan government itself are loath to trust the Taliban to fulfil their obligations.
President George W, Bush had ordered the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in response to the fatal September 11, 2001 al-Qaida terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. When the World Trade Center in New York collapsed on that crisp, sunny morning, it completely changed how America sees the world.
The Taliban had given sanctuary to Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida network as they plotted, and then celebrated, the hijackings of four airliners that were then crashed into the Twin Towers in Lower Manhattan, the Pentagon and a field in western Pennsylvania, killing almost 3,000 people.
It only took a few months to overthrow the harsh, authoritarian Taliban regime and send Osama bin Laden and top al-Qaida militants scrambling across the border into Pakistan [although this was unknown at the time], but the civil war dragged on for years as the United States tried to establish a stable, functioning state in one of the least developed countries in the world.
The Taliban regrouped and currently hold sway over half the country.
The U.S. spent more than US Dollar $ 750 billion, and on all sides the war cost tens of thousands of lives lost.
The conflict was frequently ignored by US politicians and the American public.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attended the ceremony in Doha [on Trump’s insistence], where the Talibanhave a political office, but did not sign the agreement. Instead, it was signed by US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad (US citizen of Afghan descent) and Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar.
Pompeo told reporters after the signing ceremony that the U.S. is “realistic” about the ‘peace deal’ it signed, but is “seizing the best opportunity for peace in a generation.” Furthermore, the U.S. will not “squander” what its soldiers “have won through blood, sweat and tears.” This does sound much like Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement for our time”? Or is it that “If peace cannot be maintained with honour, it is no longer peace” (Lord John Russell).
In the meantime, the Taliban have already held a victory march in Qatar. Abbas Stanikzai, one of the Taliban’s lead negotiators claimed: “Today is the day of victory, which has come with the help of Allah.”
The next step of the peace process is supposed to be the intra-Afghan dialogue preceded by a swap of prisoners – the Taliban to release up to 1,000 prisoners and for the Afghan government to release around 5,000 insurgent captives by March 10, when talks are supposed to start. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani now says he will not commit to this stipulation. Nor has he finalized who will negotiate with the Islamic militants.
A darker view is that Afghan leaders beset by endemic corruption and with scant ability to coalesce on any issue, will bicker during talks with the militants and provide an opening for the well-organised Taliban to exploit. Compounding social and economic woes and ethnic strife, Afghanistan is currently in the grips of a new political and constitutional crisis amid contested presidential election results (AFP/March 2).
Some Afghanistan veterans have sounded a note of caution. General David H. Petraeus, a former top military commander in Afghanistan and CIA director warned: “We need to end [the endless wars] the right way, or as we have learned in the past, we may have to return to them” (NYT, March 3).
U.S. Election Watch
Former V.P. Biden Finally Achieves Breakthrough
South Carolina Primary [Nominating Contest]
In the South Carolina primary last Saturday, former Vice President Joe Biden [under President Barack Obama] emerged the dominant winner (CNN/February 29). The main points that emerged were:
– Biden wins substantially. Biden surged to a strong victory with his first-ever nominating contest win. In a state dominated by Democratic majority Afro-Americans, Biden won around 3 in 5 black votes, dominating over Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, his closest competitor who got almost 1 in 5 of the demographic group. Billionaire Tom Steyer [who had advertised aggressively in the state] came close to Sanders, with around 1 in 7 black voters.
– Sanders came in only a distant second. The South Carolina electorate was far more moderate and African-American than the states in which Sanders has prospered [Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada]. Sanders grudgingly conceded defeat, and made what could turn out to be self-fulfilling prophecy: “We did not win in South Carolina. That will not be the only defeat. There are a lot of states in this country and nobody can win them all.”
– Biden closed the delegate gap on Sanders. Biden’s delegate count increased again after the South Carolina primary from 34 to 41. Biden is now only 12 delegates behind Sanders, who is leading with 53. Candidates need a total of 1,991 delegates to win the Democratic nomination.
Pete Buttigieg has 26 delegates, Elizabeth Warren has 8 and Amy Klobuchar has 7.
– Tom Steyer dropped out: The billionaire businessman said he decided to withdraw from the 2020 presidential race after he couldn’t see a “path where I can win.” Steyer had spent big on ads in the state leading up to Saturday’s vote, and had definitely taken away votes from Biden.
– Biden leads in the popular vote. Former Vice President Joe Biden is leading the popular vote so far with 281,164 votes (27.8 percent) after four Democratic contests.
That’s 30,216 more votes than Sanders, who comes in a distant second with 250,948 votes (24.8 percent).
The rest of the candidates’ standing are:
Former Mayor Pete Buttigieg: 169,291 (16.7 percent)
Senator Warren: 104,793 (10.3 percent)
Senator Amy Klobuchar: 101,344 (10.0 percent).
The other candidates – Amy Klobuchar, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg and Michael Bloomberg — are now all studying their path forward.
Klobuchar and Warren are committed to “Super Tuesday”, March 3, when voters in their home states – Minnesota and Massachusetts respectively — cast ballots. Then their day of reckoning will have arrived.
One of the biggest questions remains about Buttigieg’s and Bloomberg’s delegates count, Buttigieg has no clear path forward. His remaining in the race would only split the moderate vote [the same goes for Klobuchar]. Multi-billionaire Bloomberg’s choice of campaigning has been highly unconventional. He is using his billions to practically trying to ‘Buy & Capture’ the American Presidency. He has also changed political parties too often, and is, therefore, only a Democrat of convenience [as is Sanders].
On Sunday, Buttigieg did the right thing by withdrawing and leaving an unlikely campaign that vaulted the once-unknown mayor from South Bend, Indiana , to a top presidential contender (CNN).
-“Super Tuesday, March 3: Day of Reckoning?
This will be the biggest day in the 2020 US elections so far. 14 states will vote to choose which Democratic candidate they want to run against Donald Trump in November’s election. It is hoped that a clearer picture will emerge of who that nominee will be (BBC, March 1).
Until now, only four states have voted so far in a series of caucuses (essentially party meetings, where the public vote comes at the end) or primaries (secret ballots).
Bernie Sanders is leading the pack. The handful of moderate Democrats running have split the vote, so it’s made it difficult for any one of them to push ahead. However, after Super Tuesday there should be a stark winnowing.
This day is all about accumulating delegates for the Democratic National Convention in summer. In each state, delegates will be awarded according to the ranking of the votes cast. The number of delegates differs from state to state – depending on the size of the electorate. The target for any candidate is to reach an unbeatable majority of 1,990 delegates.
Up to now, only 155 delegates have been selected in four states. On Super Tuesday, 14 small and large states are voting and a massive 1,357 delegates will be distributed. Among them, the two most populous, California and Texas will participate.
The delegates breakdown and the stakes are as follows:
– Vermont: 16 delegates
Since Bernie Sanders is one of the state’s senators, he will top it. In fact, no one else is expected to cross the 15 percent threshold of votes to garner any delegates.
– Maine 24 delegates
Here too Sanders is expected to win. He did so back in 2016, winning more than double the number of delegates claimed by Hillary Clinton.
– Utah 29 delegates
In 2016, Sanders won here convincingly. Strangely, no candidate who has won Utah has then gone on to become the Democratic nominee since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. Can Sanders overturn this quirk of fate?
– Arkansas 31 delegates
Bloomberg’s plan of concentration on Super Tuesday states could pay off here, but it is a close-run.
In the general election, Arkansas has only opted for the Democratic candidate twice in 40 years – and that was local matador Bill Clinton!
– Oklahoma 37 delegates
Polls point towards it being a good day for Bloomberg and Sanders, but Biden and Buttigieg are not far behind.
– Alabama 52 delegates
This is safe Biden territory. He has the support of senior Democrats in Alabama and is widely liked among African-Americans.
– Tennessee 64 delegates
Sanders was a distant second to Hillary Clinton back in 2016. Biden will be a strong challenger.
The state has one of the worst voter turnout rates in the U.S. This could be the testing ground for the Sanders’ campaign claim that it can mobilize hundreds of thousands of new voters!
– Colorado 67 delegates
The odds are in favor of Sanders. The state is no longer a Republican stronghold [‘red’ state] because of out-of-state migration and population growth. Colorado is turning increasingly blue and the Democratic tilt may also impact the US Senate race.
– Minnesota 75 delegates
This is the state that Amy Klobuchar represents in the Senate and it might be the only one she wins in the whole primary race.
It is also part of the US badly hit by Trump’s trade war with China.
– Massachusetts 91 delegates
Being the senior senator for the state, Elizabeth Warren hopesto shine, but even coming second would be an embarrassment. Michael Bloomberg also lives in the state now, but is not expected to do especially well here.
– Virginia 99 delegates
The vote could be split fairly evenly between Biden, Sanders and Bloomberg.
The results to watch are the Washington, D.C. suburbs. This suburban vote will be crucial across the country in November’s elections – as it was in the 2018 mid-terms, which brought a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives.
The crucial question now is whether moderates in the suburbs will back Sanders, the nation-wide favorite for now.
– North Carolina 110 delegates
This state provides a similar picture to neighboring Virginia and pundits see a close contest between Biden, Sanders and Bloomberg. It will be a battleground state in November and the suburbs will be crucially important. It will be important to watch how the vote is divided and who ends up becoming the nominee. The way votes go here in November might help decide the whole presidential election!
– Texas 228 delegates
It’s very close between Biden and Sanders here. Sanders could claim a large amount of delegates and his lead could be huge by the end of the day. The big question mark is the turnout of the substantial Hispanic vote.
– California 415 delegates
This is where Sanders’ appeal to the “multi-racial coalition” could pay off and do well with African-Americans, Latinos and Asian-Americans’. The country’s most populous state will award 30 percent of the delegates on Super Tuesday.
– American Samoa (6 delegates) and Democrats Abroad (13) are also voting on Super Tuesday.
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