February 10, 2020

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NEED TO KNOW

AFGHANISTAN

Grand Plans

Peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban have stalled. The former insists on a complete cease-fire before the talks can restart, while the latter has only agreed to a “reduction of violence,” explained Al Jazeera. The US, meanwhile, wants to taper down the 13,000 American troops in the south-central Asian country after almost 19 years of war.

An unnamed Pakistani official with knowledge of the peace talks said negotiators can’t agree on the “definition of reduction in violence” and suffer from a mutual “trust deficit,” Voice of America reported.

The fighting on the ground continues.

CNN reported on a spike in Taliban violence, citing military statistics that included 8,200 attacks by the insurgent force in the last three months of 2019, with more than a third of them causing casualties. The US, meanwhile, stepped up air assaults, dropping more bombs on Afghanistan in 2019 than any year since 2013, reported the Associated Press.

Around 9,200 civilians died or suffered injuries during fighting in Afghanistan last year, a toll similar to the previous year’s, the Daily Beast wrote. Hundreds of thousands of people are internally displaced. Millions face food insecurity. The World Bank estimated that Afghanistan will probably need more than $6 billion in international aid through 2024 to keep the government going.

Intrigues worthy of spy novels are arising as the fighting eclipses the diplomacy.

When an American military plane crashed in eastern Afghanistan late last month, rumors swirled that a CIA officer was on board. Time magazine explained how the unverified claim went from Iranian state television to British tabloids to legitimate newspapers. Two American service members died in the crash but US officials denied either was a CIA officer.

The US admitted the aircraft was a high-tech electronic surveillance plane. Radio Free Europe described it as a “WiFi in the sky,” noting that the loss of such a sophisticated plane in Taliban territory was a major military setback.

Speaking to the Turkey-based Anadolu Agency, Afghan politician and veteran Mujahideen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar claimed that Iran shot down the American plane as revenge against the US killing of Iranian military commander and terror mastermind Qassem Soleimani.

Certainly, higher tensions between the US and Iran have put Afghan leaders on edge. Afghanistan borders Iran and wouldn’t want to be a staging area for American attacks against its neighbor, the New York Times wrote.

Grand plans can appear pointless in such a complicated environment.

WANT TO KNOW

LIBYA

Much To Do

Representatives of Libya’s warring factions ended their talks in Switzerland on Saturday without reaching a cease-fire agreement, in a development that could further hurt the country’s oil production, Middle East Eye reported.

The talks were aimed at ending fighting between the United Nations-backed government in Tripoli and eastern military commander Khalifa Hifter, who launched an offensive on Tripoli in April.

The parties failed to agree on how to return people displaced by the war and when to end a blockade of major oil ports and oilfields by forces and tribesmen loyal to Hifter.

Tribesmen and communities in the east refused to allow the resumption of oil exports unless Tripoli expels militias and distributes oil revenues fairly.

The UN said that a new meeting to continue the discussions is scheduled for Feb. 18.

Since the blockade began, Libya’s oil production has plunged by about three-quarters.

The recent negotiations come after world leaders agreed to end foreign interference in the country and uphold an arms embargo at a summit in Berlin, Germany, last month.

THAILAND

Seventeen Hours

Thai security forces shot dead a soldier who had killed at least 29 people in a shopping mall on Sunday, the Wall Street Journal reported.

The gunman, identified as Sergeant Major Jakrapanth Thomma, began his attack Saturday using stolen military weapons and posting messages on Facebook. The rampage lasted 17 hours.

He initially opened fire at a military facility and later drove to the Terminal 21 mall in the city of Nakhon Ratchasima, about 150 miles northeast of the country’s capital of Bangkok.

Authorities believe that the man had a mental breakdown and suspect that the shooting was related to a personal dispute over a property sale.

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said that the case was “unprecedented” and condemned the attack, Channel News Asia (CNA) reported.

Gun violence is not uncommon in Thailand, but mass shootings are rare.

Thailand’s rate of gun ownership is one of the highest in the world, and several shootings at courthouses last year have renewed concerns about gun violence, according to CNA.

IRAN

Ashes to Ashes

Iran failed to put a communications satellite into orbit on Sunday, the latest setback for a program the United States believes will be used by Tehran for missile development, Reuters reported.

The launch of the Simorgh, or “Phoenix,” was supposed to take place during the celebrations ahead of the February anniversary of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.

The satellite’s first mission was to transmit an image of the late top military commander Qassem Soleimani, who was killed by US drone strike last month, the Jerusalem Post reported.

The failed launch is Iran’s fourth attempt at sending a satellite into orbit, following two failed launches and a launch pad rocket explosion last year.

The consecutive failures have raised suspicion of foreign sabotage, according to Reuters.

Sunday’s failure also comes amid tensions between Iran and the United States that have been escalating since Washington withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal in 2018 and re-imposed sanctions on Iran.

The US alleges that the satellite launches are a cover to develop ballistic missile technology needed to launch nuclear warheads.

Tehran has denied that their satellite program and rocket tests have a military component.

DISCOVERIES

Effective Communicators

Humans and penguins are far apart as species, but they do share similar speech patterns, the BBC’s Science Focus Magazine reported.

Lead researcher Livio Favaro and his team analyzed 590 “ecstatic display songs” from 28 African penguins during the breeding periods in 2016 and 2017.

In their paper, the team wrote that the endangered species’ songs follow two main laws that are present in human linguistics: Zipf’s law of abbreviation – also known as Brevity law – and the Menzerath-Altmann law.

The law of abbreviation holds that words that are more frequently used are briefer, while the second law states that longer words are composed of extra but briefer syllables.

In more concrete terms, the researchers found that the flightless birds’ calls mostly used the shortest words, while their longest words were made up of shorter syllables.

“As predicted, we found that the duration of the syllables was inversely correlated with the frequency of occurrence,” they wrote.

The study marks the first time a non-primate species has been shown to conform with these linguistic laws.

The authors suggested that the laws are not exactly linked to language, but more focused on sharing information efficiently.

“The laws seem to reflect something deeper and more general about communication and information,” Chris Kello, who was not involved in the study, told the Guardian.

See a video of an African penguin performing an ecstatic display song here.