The World Today for February 07, 2017

NEED TO KNOW

Tug of War

With the world focused on the plight of millions of refugees displaced by the Syrian Civil War, it’s easy to forget the ongoing power struggle in Afghanistan.

That’s a mistake.

On Monday, the United Nations claimed that nearly 3,500 Afghan civilians died and more than 7,900 were wounded last year, the worst totals since the organization started tallying civilian casualties eight years ago.

The toll is no great surprise, alas. The Afghan government remained in control of around only 57 percent of the country at the end of 2016, a 6 percent decrease from the previous year, according to a Congressional report published by Foreign Policy.

Despite American investment of some $117 billion since 2002, the Taliban continues to gain ground in unstable provinces in the north, west and south. The United Nations estimates that some 600,000 people were internally displaced last year due to fighting.

Hundreds of thousands of Afghans who sought refuge in neighboring Pakistan in the past two decades are also being forced to return home as Islamabad has cracked down on the refugees who have lived as nomads in the decades since conflict broke out.

While the Afghan government has promised short-term aid to returnees, help is slow in coming from a government hanging on by a thread. The UN estimates that some 9.3 million people in Afghanistan are in dire need of immediate assistance, up 13 percent from last year, the New York Times reported.

Afghans are split about which actors to trust for relief. While some advocate for a full US withdrawal from the country, others hope that President Donald Trump can breathe new life into a conflict largely at a standstill for years.

“We do not want troops withdrawn because of the situation we are in, but at the same time, we do not want the status quo to go on for an indefinite period,” a university student in Kabul told the Washington Post.

Trump is inheriting a quagmire, the Wall Street Journal reported.

The lion’s share of international troops was withdrawn in 2014, although instability forced former President Barack Obama to backtrack to some extent. Around 8,400 American troops remain in Afghanistan, supplemented by 6,400 NATO-allied troops.

In a phone call last December with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, then-President-elect Trump said he’d consider bolstering US military aid to Afghanistan.

But with the American president largely committed to an “America first” platform, it’s hard to see how America’s forgotten war can compete for his attention.

WANT TO KNOW

Of Mock Trials and Mass Killings

Mass executions of as many as 13,000 people at a secret Syrian prison had the sanction of the highest levels of President Bashar al-Assad’s government, according to Amnesty International.

A new report by the human rights group alleges that mass hangings – mostly of civilian supporters of opposition groups – took place every week at Saydnaya prison between September 2011 and December 2015, the BBC reported.

Though the regime has denied such executions, United Nations human rights experts have said that witness accounts and documentary evidence strongly suggested that “deaths on a massive scale” were occurring in custody. Amnesty’s conclusions were based on interviews with 84 people, including former guards, detainees and prison officials.

The report alleges that groups of 20 to 50 people were executed once or twice a week at the facility, which lies north of Damascus, after trials before a military field court that lasted one to three minutes.

A Shameful Milestone

The ongoing presidential election in Somalia is turning out to be the wrong sort of milestone.

After languishing without a functioning central government for more than a quarter century, Somalia is holding an innovative, closely watched election this week. But observers contend that it’s emerging as one of the most fraudulent political events in Somalia’s history, the New York Times reported.

Somali investigators estimate that at least $20 million has changed hands during parliamentary elections that will culminate in the selection of the president on Wednesday, with Turkey, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar all said to be spreading money around to ensure future business deals.

Though Transparency International already ranks Somalia among the most corrupt nations in the world, the election exercise is so bad that analysts say the al-Shabaab militant group isn’t even trying to disrupt it – since it makes them look morally superior to the country’s would-be democratic leaders.

The reason for the free-for-all? A plan to select the 275 members of parliament with caucuses comprising 51 clan delegates instead of a single clan elder multiplied, rather than reduced, the number of bribes.

Let the Legalities Begin

Israel’s parliament approved a law designed to retroactively legalize thousands of homes built on private Palestinian land in the West Bank by Jewish settlers, the Associated Press reported.

The latest in several pro-settlement moves taken by Israel since the election of Donald Trump – who publicly criticized a UN resolution condemning the settlements before taking office – the controversial new law is expected to be challenged at Israel’s Supreme Court, the AP said.

“We are voting tonight on the connection between the Jewish people and its land,” Cabinet minister Ofir Akunis said during the debate leading up to the vote. “This whole land is ours. All of it.”

Legally speaking, the West Bank is not sovereign Israeli territory, which not only contradicts Akunis’ statement but also means that the Palestinians had no role in electing the government that imposed the law on them, the AP said.

Though other forms of censure could be forthcoming, the initial response from the White House was to refer to its statement last week that said the construction of new settlements “may not be helpful” in achieving an Israeli-Palestinian peace.

DISCOVERIES

What’s Taking My Order?

Residents of San Francisco – the home of many of the most innovative and forward-thinking companies in the United States – are no strangers to new technologies that disrupt daily life.

Now, a new Bay Area café has eliminated the barista.

Coffee and other beverages are served at Café X without human interaction: customers place orders through apps or kiosks while a robotic arm – a Mitsubishi 6-axis industrial robot – prepares and delivers beverages, even frothy cappuccino.

Café X is part of a wider trend in Silicon Valley where traditional service shops like pizza restaurants are transformed through automation, wrote the Christian Science Monitor.

Technology evangelists praise these robots as a route to lower costs and better quality. But others warn they pose a risk to many entry-level, low-skilled jobs.

“Innovation creates new jobs as well as replaces and eliminates old ones,” Joel Mokyr, an economist at Northwest University, told the Christian Science Monitor. “At this point it is far from clear how these flows counteract one another.”

Perhaps coffee-making robot repair technician will be a job of the future.

Check out a video of Café X robots in action here.

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