The World Today for January 30, 2018



The New Mercenaries

A little more than a decade after a deadly Baghdad shootout sparked concerns that private military contractors had spiraled out of control, the United Arab Emirates is hiring former CIA agents and special forces operators to build its own spy agency from the ground up.

The key figure in the spy agency program is the former intelligence officer Larry Sanchez, who was also responsible for the CIA’s partnership with the New York Police Department after 9/11, Foreign Policy reported.

With a cyber surveillance outfit modeled on the National Security Agency in place in the UAE since 2011, Sanchez’s CAGN Global Ltd. now employs former law-enforcement officers, retired Western intelligence officials, and ex-soldiers to train the Emiratis on how to be spies and paramilitary operators.

“It’s exactly what they [the CIA] teach at the farm,” the magazine quoted a former employee of Sanchez’s firm as saying.

With a population of around 9.5 million people, only around 1.5 million of whom are Emirati citizens, the UAE changed its thinking dramatically after 9/11, said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Earlier, the UAE had been one of only three countries to recognize the Taliban as Afghanistan’s legitimate government. But when the Gulf nation discovered that it had unknowingly served as a transit hub for the 9/11 terrorists, and two of the hijackers were Emiratis, it abandoned that policy and developed a new focus on internal security.

That could well be to the benefit of the US, as the two countries have common interests and a close security cooperation dating to the first Gulf War to oust Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. But critics worry that the firms may be violating US laws limiting the “export” of such skills, as well as potentially building a draconian secret police force.

This month, the Abu Dhabi Federal Court of Appeals handed out stiff sentences in a dozen-odd cases related to charges of promoting terrorism, espionage for foreign countries, and joining terrorist organizations, Gulf News reported.

But the UAE has a reputation for crushing political dissent. Human-rights groups have documented cases of arbitrary detention and torture of activists and dissidents. And the government has used some of its imported surveillance tools to target Ahmed Mansoor, a prominent activist who has been detained since March.

“The UAE claims anyone against the regime is Iranian or Persian-influenced … either that or the Muslim Brotherhood,” Foreign Policy quoted an intelligence source as saying.

As the UAE, Saudi Arabia and other regional powers vie for influence – and to beat back democracy movements like the Arab Spring – there are also no guarantees that their militaries and spy agencies will continue to tolerate the US leash.

As Ellen Laipson opined in the National Review following the UAE’s unexpected strike against Islamist rebels in Libya in 2014, the rise of such “middle powers” marks a “transition from a US-led regional-security arrangement to something beyond US control.”

With a Sunni-Shi’ite rift dividing the Middle East and already resulting in at least one proxy war in Yemen between Saudi Arabia and Iran, that could prove dangerous indeed.



Revolving Door

Romania’s parliament approved Viorica Dancila as the country’s third prime minister in the past 12 months on Monday, ushering in the first woman to hold the post.

Dancila, 54, has been a member of the European Parliament since 2009. But she is a relative neophyte in Romanian politics and has close ties to Liviu Dragnea, the powerful leader of the governing Social Democrat Party, the New York Times reported.

As a result, many question her independence and her ability to make real progress against the country’s endemic corruption. Dragnea, after all, was unable to run for the position himself because of a conviction for electoral fraud, and he is under investigation for misuse of state money, including European Union funds.

Dancila aims to raise the minimum wage, improve transport and reduce bureaucracy.

Several of her cabinet members, including the new business minister, Radu Oprea, have faced allegations of corruption, the Times noted.


Elusive Peace

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos suspended talks with Colombia’s last-standing guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), on Monday after three attacks killed seven policemen and injured 50.

The president said the talks would remain suspended “until I see coherence between their words and actions,” according to Colombia Reports. ELN said the attacks would continue until there is an agreement on a bilateral ceasefire.

The talks had resumed briefly at the urging of the United Nations following a similar stalemate. The government and ELN have engaged in on-again, off-again negotiations since February 2017 to end a five-decade war, the Guardian noted.

Meanwhile, peace talks with the larger Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have borne fruit. The rebels have demobilized and turned to politics, with former leader Rodrigo Londoño declaring his candidacy in the May 27 presidential election this week, NPR reported.

The FARC will be participating in elections for the first time since it was founded in the 1960s.


Bulls on Parade

North Korea has backed out of a planned joint cultural performance with the South on Feb. 4, highlighting the fragile nature of the recent détente between the two nations.

Pyongyang blamed the South Korean media for its withdrawal, saying media outlets had been “defaming” its position on the Olympics. Seoul said the withdrawal was “regretful,” Bloomberg reported.

The cancellation relates to an event scheduled for Feb. 4 at the Mount Kumgang resort north of the border. So far it does not affect plans for North Korea to participate in the Olympics.

Pyongyang also cited criticism of an “internal celebration event,” which most likely refers to speculation that the North will hold a large-scale military parade Feb. 8.

The North recently designated Feb. 8, 1948, as the foundation date of the Korean People’s Army and said it would mark the occasion with a celebration this year.


Friend Request

Carol Jenkins, a retired nurse from Berkshire, England, had a brutal bout of loneliness after she became an empty-nester and moved to a smaller house in a different county.

“Months would go by without seeing my friends or family, and I felt really depressed and alone,” she told the New York Times.

Jenkins isn’t the only one: According to a 2017 report, more than nine million people in the United Kingdom almost always feel lonely – an affliction that can take a toll. Loneliness has been shown to be worse for health than smoking 15 cigarettes a day, said Mark Robinson, chief officer of Age UK, Britain’s largest charity working with the elderly.

This “sad reality of modern life” prompted Prime Minister Theresa May to establish a “minister for loneliness” within her cabinet.

Tracey Crouch, the undersecretary for sport and civil society in the culture ministry, will lead the initiative, collaborating with the Office of National Statistics to develop methods to measure loneliness.

Jenkins, who’s turned recently to Facebook to establish a community, welcomed the nation’s calls to tackle the issue.

“It’s only a matter of time before loneliness turns into depression,” she said. “And that’s where it gets dangerous.”

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