The World Today for March 05, 2018

NEED TO KNOW

AFGHANISTAN

Open Letters and Bloodshed

Barnett Rubin, a former American diplomat and veteran scholar of Afghanistan, recently wrote an open letter in the New Yorker to the Taliban asking them to “begin the long-delayed peace talks that Afghans deserve.”

But what unfolded as the week continued showed that the call fell on deaf ears.

Now in its 17th year, the bloody stalemate between the internationally recognized, US-backed government in Kabul and the Taliban continues to produce heavy casualties. In February, the United Nations announced that as many as 10,000 Afghan civilians had been killed or wounded in 2017 alone – two-thirds of them in anti-government attacks.

Violence hasn’t relented in 2018, either.

In late January, a shooting rampage at Kabul’s Intercontinental hotel killed 22 people, and more than 100 died when a bomb-laden ambulance exploded a week later. And in late February, a string of attacks staged by the Taliban in the nation’s south killed at least 20 Afghan soldiers, the New York Times reported.

On Feb. 28, amid stalled peace negotiations and increased violence, Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani threw a Hail Mary pass: He offered the Taliban amnesty from war crimes and said he’d recognize the Islamic militants as a legitimate political party, the Los Angeles Times reported.

“We are making this offer without preconditions in order to lead to a peace agreement,” Ghani told delegates from dozens of countries at a peace conference known as the Kabul Process.

The move is in line with the international consensus that the conflict won’t end militarily, even though increased American military presence under the Trump administration has been pegged as a move to force the Taliban to the negotiating table.

The Taliban did offer recently to begin talks with the US. But the offer was rejected by the Trump administration: “Any peace talks with Afghanistan have to be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said at a press briefing last week.

But the olive branch from President Ghani was largely ignored.

Instead, the Taliban issued a direct reply to Rubin’s open letter – by once again denouncing the legitimacy of Ghani’s government, Reuters reported.

“Our country has been occupied, which has led to an American-style supposed Afghan government being imposed upon us,” the Taliban response said. “Your view that we talk to them and accept their legitimacy is the same formula adopted by America to win the war.”

A week that began with promise only ended in more bloodshed when an explosion in East Kabul killed a young girl and injured six others, the Associated Press reported.

The Taliban hasn’t claimed responsibility for the attack but the bookend to the week was a clear symbol all the same: In a decades-long conflict, negotiations via open letters won’t stanch the bloodshed.

WANT TO KNOW

ITALY

Left, Right, But Not Center

Sunday’s election in Italy boosted the fortunes of the country’s anti-establishment populists, while the center-right coalition backed by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi won the most votes. But with no group winning an outright majority, weeks of horse-trading are likely before the country gets a new government.

Early results indicated that Berlusconi’s bloc just edged out the leftist Five Star party led by Luigi Di Maio, Bloomberg reported. Meanwhile, Berlusconi’s center-right Forza Italia party won fewer votes than the far-right League, raising the possibility of a left-right anti-establishment coalition. Other projections showed the center-left Democratic Party under 20 percent, the League at 17.7 percent, Forza Italia at 13.3 percent and Five Star at 32.5 percent.

Though pro-EU parties stemmed the tide in recent elections in France and Germany, the Italian results signal fresh problems for Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Emmanuel Macron as the pro-EU leaders deal with Brexit, EU reform and the growing possibility of a trade war.

GERMANY

Not So Grand

German Chancellor Angela Merkel will finally form her fourth government after two-thirds of the rank and file members of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) approved another so-called “grand coalition” with her conservative bloc.

The vote ended five months of political gridlock, but the coalition may not be so grand, the BBC reported.

Merkel and her new allies face concerted opposition from the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), which entered the federal parliament for the first time in September with just over 12% of the vote and now makes up the largest opposition group. Meanwhile, Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian affiliate lost 65 seats, and the SPD gave its worst showing ever.

As a result, Merkel was forced to accept an SPD finance minister and allot five other ministerial posts to the Social Democrats.

Despite those concessions, analysts fear that the coalition risks further alienating SPD voters – likely to the benefit of the AfD, noted the Daily Beast.

CHINA

Growth and Stability

China has set a growth target of 6.5 percent for 2018, opting not to try to boost its economy to a faster pace in a bid to ensure financial stability.

Notably, this year’s statement – issued ahead of Premier Li Keqiang’s report to the National People’s Congress gathering in Beijing Monday – didn’t include a pledge to seek higher growth “if possible in practice” as it did in 2017, Bloomberg reported.

In 2017, China easily surpassed its 6.5 percent target, delivering 6.9 percent growth. But experts say that’s not likely this year due to ongoing efforts to reduce debt and the possibility of a trade war with the US.

On Sunday, Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui sought to downplay that risk, saying China would host US officials for a new round of trade negotiations soon and emphasizing that Beijing doesn’t want a trade war, the agency said separately.

Trump’s moves to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum imports may still prompt a retaliation from China, possibly in the form of a restriction on the import of US soybeans.

DISCOVERIES

In the Flesh

When one Madrid local thought he caught a glimpse of exiled Catalan President Carles Puigdemont – wanted on sedition charges related to Catalonia’s independence movement – waving a Catalonian flag in the city’s Parque Europa, he did what any reasonable Spaniard would: He called the cops.

When six of Madrid’s finest arrived on the scene, however, they realized it was a false alarm: It was none other than Spanish comedian Joaquin Reyes.

Reyes has been known to impersonate other divisive political leaders, like France’s Marine Le Pen and Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro.

But his uncanny Puigdemont impression for his sketch comedy show was enough to draw more than a few looks, Euronews reported.

Police officers responding to the call laughed off the stunt, but the concerned citizen scolded Reyes, saying that the current state of politics is “not for jokes.”

After the referendum snafu in Catalonia last October, the real Puigdemont fled to Belgium. Spain’s Constitutional Court ruled that the outstanding warrant for his arrest and his flight abroad deemed him ineligible to hold office.

Puigdemont previously suggested he could carry out the duties of his post via Skype – drawing as many laughs from politicians as Reyes is likely to get as his doppelgänger.

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