The World Today for December 22, 2016


Once More Unto the Breach

In recent years, it’s been common to hear that, while violence in the far-flung provinces of Afghanistan has ebbed and flowed, Kabul was safe under the umbrella of the US-supported central government.

That’s not true anymore.

On Wednesday, Taliban fighters attacked the house of a member of parliament who represents Helmand, the BBC reported. They were holding hostages early on Thursday morning in the city.

A year ago, the BBC said violence was on the rise in the capital after years of relative calm following the American-led invasion in 2001. But the British broadcaster’s story at that time focused on a family’s “rare” visit to a carnival where un-veiled women congregated in public with men – a no-no under the Taliban’s ultra-orthodox interpretation of Sharia law. Those visits are likely rarer now.

The US has ratcheted down its role in Afghanistan, and things have grown worse.

“Afghanistan has fallen so far from Americans’ consciousness that some may have forgotten it’s called the forgotten war,” the Associated Press quipped earlier this month, adding that around 10,000 American troops are now in the country serving as trainers – down from 100,000 in 2010.

President Ashraf Ghani’s administration has fallen prey to corruption and infighting, and a resurgent Taliban has grown bolder in its forays into Kabul.

Afghan prosecutors, for example, recently opened an investigation into Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum for allegedly abducting a political rival from a buzkashi match – the traditional Afghan game where horseman compete for possession of a dead goat. Dostum was accused of torturing and sexually abusing the man, including penetrating him with the barrel of an AK-47 rifle.

Dostum denied the accusations. The New York Times wrote that he’s part of Ghani’s government because of his influence over the country’s Uzbek community.

A few days later, the Taliban released a video of a couple – Canadian Joshua Boyle and American Caitlan Coleman – who were abducted while foolishly backpacking in Wardak, a hotbed of jihadists near Kabul. Coleman was pregnant with their first child at the time.

In the video, Boyle pleads for President Barack Obama and President-elect Donald Trump to end their “Kafkaesque nightmare” by yielding to their captors’ demands, the CBC reported.

American officials are working to the release the couple. But Boyle and Coleman’s pleas will likely fall on deaf ears when Trump is in the White House.

Trump has called for an end to nation building. His top defense picks want to step up the war against the Taliban and other jihadists around the globe.

War and terror that culminated in the September 11, 2001, attacks brought yet more war and terror to Afghanistan over the past 15 years. It seems the cycle is far from over.



Hey, Big Spender

Longtime conscientious objector Japan on Thursday approved a record military budget, following Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s 2015 move to reinterpret Article 9 of the constitution, which prohibits a Japanese military.

Abe’s cabinet on Thursday signed off on a 1.4 percent increase in spending to 5.13 trillion yen ($43.66 billion) for the year starting April 1, Time reported.

If approved by parliament, which is highly likely, it will be the fifth such increase in as many years – part of an effort to counter growing Chinese military power in the East China Sea and an escalating North Korean ballistic missile threat.

That new focus means Japan will reduce its emphasis on tanks and build a mobile force equipped with tilt-rotor Osprey carriers, ships, amphibious vehicles and mobile missile batteries, as well as increase spending on its ballistic missile defense, the magazine said.

Japan controls the uninhabited East China Sea islands, called Senkaku by Japan and the Diaoyu by China. But both countries lay claim to them, and both routinely patrol the area with military vessels and aircraft.

Silent Treatment

After excluding the US from talks on ending the war in Syria, the Kremlin says almost all channels of communication between Moscow and Washington have been frozen.

“Almost every level of dialogue with the United States is frozen,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, according to Reuters. “We don’t communicate with one another, or (if we do) we do so minimally.”

Apart from the face-off over the future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Moscow and Washington are sparring over the possible expansion of NATO – even as President-elect Donald Trump has threatened to withdraw US funding from the alliance.

State Department spokesman John Kirby rejected Peskov’s statement, saying diplomatic channels remain open. However, US Secretary of State John Kerry was excluded from recent talks where Russia, Turkey and Iran agreed to find a solution to the Syrian crisis.

As the Wall Street Journal notes, Russia may now be the dominant player in the Middle East. But the assassination of its envoy to Turkey shows its new role has also made it the target of strong resentment.

Usual Suspect

New details about the prime suspect in this week’s attack on a Christmas market in Berlin have deepened the political fallout for Chancellor Angela Merkel.

As a nationwide manhunt continues, German authorities issued a 100,000 euro ($105,000) reward for information leading to the capture of a 24-year old Tunisian migrant known as Anis Amri on Wednesday, the Washington Post reported.

Amri did not enter Germany as part of the nearly 1 million asylum seekers that Merkel agreed to allow into the country last year. But he had entered Germany as a would-be refugee and apparently slipped through the net despite being slated for deportation and the subject of a terrorism investigation, the paper said.

The revelations about his background resulted in predictable calls for revisiting Merkel’s refugee policies. But some went further than that, calling for the deployment of more police, armed with military-style weapons.


The Obstetrics Dilemma

Part of what makes humans human is our ability to use our ingenuity to flex the evolutionary path.

One example of our resourcefulness is the Cesarean section.

In the United States, C-sections account for some 30 percent of all births. But now scientists posit that this increasingly common practice may be influencing human evolution.

Human births are historically dangerous. Unlike other primates, a human baby’s head is barely small enough to fit through its mother’s pelvis.

This makes humans more prone to fetopelvic disproportion — a condition found in roughly three percent of births where either the baby’s head is too big or the mother’s hips are too small for a natural birth.

Enter the “obstetric dilemma.” While large heads provide more room for bigger brains, and narrower hips make for easier to walk upright on two feet, the two factors can present life-threatening conditions during childbirth.

“Most cases of fetopelvic disproportion … were lethal without C-sections,” Philipp Mitteröcker, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Vienna, told Vox. “Hence these mothers were not able to pass on their genes.”

The advent of the C-section, however, has presented a solution to the dilemma, Mitteröcker hypothesizes in a newly published paper.

Using mathematical models to predict future cases of fetopelvic disproportion, he theorizes that humans can keep getting smaller hips and bigger brains without fear of fatal bodily constraints. With more of these babies surviving, genes for these traits will propagate.

Click here for a peek at some other evolutionary vestiges still present in humans today.

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