The World Today for March 09, 2020

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NEED TO KNOW

AFGHANISTAN

The Fine Print

A terrorist recently rode a motorcycle rigged with a bomb into a soccer game in Afghanistan, killing at least three and wounding 11. The attack was just one of dozens that have occurred since the US and the Taliban signed a peace deal late last month,  reported Al Jazeera.

The attacks have primarily targeted the security forces of the US-backed government in Kabul, which was not party to the talks between American and Taliban negotiators.

The deal calls for the US to withdraw its 12,000 soldiers from Afghanistan over the course of 14 months, the Los Angeles Times explained. The insurgents, in turn, promised not to harbor al Qaeda or other terrorist groups, and to end their attacks on American and other foreign forces.

The troop withdrawals would bring an end to almost 19 years of war that began after the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001. American forces invaded the mountainous Central Asian nation in response to its hosting al Qaeda.

Close to 200,000 Afghans and more than 2,300 American and other foreign troops have died in the fighting since then, the New York Post wrote. The war has cost the US $2 trillion, an amount that’s likely low when one considers the cost of veterans’ ongoing healthcare and lost productivity due to war-related injuries.

For Afghanistan, the next step will be “intra-Afghan” talks between the Taliban and leaders in Kabul. Those talks were due to start this week, but that timetable is in doubt, National Public Radio reported.

As Business Insider wrote, the Afghan government was supposed to release thousands of Taliban prisoners as a prerequisite for the intra-Afghan talks. But leaders in Kabul are understandably balking at the prospect of freeing killers they’ve been fighting for years.

Tensions within the Afghan government also complicate the process. President Ashraf Ghani and political rival Abdullah Abdullah disagree over who won a recent election, Reuters noted. Somehow, they’ll have to agree on which officials should negotiate with the Taliban.

The deal has other flaws.

For example, it’s not clear whether the US will be able to effectively monitor whether the Taliban are living up to their side of the bargain, NPR said in a separate report. For this reason, former National Security Adviser John Bolton has been especially critical of the deal, saying it legitimized the Taliban without ensuring protection for American citizens.

The US might still retain a small force in the country or use outside bases to attack terror groups as it deems necessary, the New York Times added. American intelligence officials are also developing new ways to keep tabs on what’s going on.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo admitted on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that the road to peace in Afghanistan is going to be “rocky and bumpy.”

Concluding an endless war was never going to be easy.

WANT TO KNOW

LEBANON

Yes We Can’t

Lebanon said over the weekend that it would fail to pay its dollar-denominated debt, further intensifying the dire economic state of the country that has in part led to mass protests since last fall, and possibly setting up messy negotiations with foreign investors, the BBC reported.

The Lebanese government said that it is unable to pay the $1.2 billion due Monday, the first time the country failed to pay off its creditors.

The country has been struggling since the value of its currency decreased: The Lebanese pound has been losing value against the US dollar for months, partly because the country’s banks have been reluctant to convert the local currency to dollars.

The issue with foreign exchange has made it hard for importers to access goods, which have become more expensive.

It remains unclear if the country will seek a bailout from the International Monetary Fund.

Prime Minister Hassan Diab said that negotiations to restructure Lebanon’s debt, which currently total $30 billion, would continue “with all creditors… in a manner consistent with the national interest.”

GUYANA

Oil and Water

Protesters hit the streets of Guyana over the weekend after opposition leaders and international observers accused the government of rigging last week’s presidential elections, Reuters reported.

Diplomats and foreign observers said there was credible evidence of fraud even as incumbent President David Granger, who was coming out ahead in the vote, denied any wrongdoing.

The allegations prompted supporters of Irfaan Ali of the opposition party PPP to block roads and clash with police, leading to the death of an 18-year-old protester in the rural West Coast Berbice region.

The clashes threaten to worsen relations between the Afro-Guyanese, who support Granger’s APNU-AFC coalition, and the Indo-Guyanese, who back the PPP.

The protests also come at a time when the South American nation, one of the continent’s poorest, is entering oil production in hopes of transforming its economy.

The former British colony is expected to earn billions of dollars from oil over the next decade.

Oil raised the stakes in the elections with both the Indo-Guyanese and the Afro-Guyanese competing to control future oil revenues.

Now, both camps are claiming victory in the elections, threatening that revenue, even as other main industries decline.

ITALY

Lockdown

The Italian government announced Sunday it was placing its northern region under quarantine in a bid to control the spread of the coronavirus, Quartz reported.

The move comes as the country registered a steep rise in infections over the weekend: According to Johns Hopkins, the number of confirmed cases jumped by more than 1,200 to 5,883 on Saturday, with 233 deaths. That mortality rate jumped to 366 Sunday.

Under the decree, travel will become severely restricted for nearly 16 million people in the northern Lombardy region and other provinces. Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte also said that most public places will be closed and gatherings – including funerals and weddings – suspended.

It is the most extreme measure taken outside of China to contain the virus, and will last until April 3.

The north is the country’s economic powerhouse, with Lombardy alone accounting for 40 percent of the industrial output.

The Italian economy shrank in the fourth quarter of 2019 and is forecast to contract further this quarter.

DISCOVERIES

Smart Birds

Some parrots are able to mimic human speech, and now researchers have found that one species can make statistical inferences, according to Cosmos magazine.

New Zealand researchers reported in their study that the kea, a New Zealand parrot, is able to make complex mathematical judgments about probability.

The researchers trained six keas to learn that black tokens meant a food reward and orange tokens meant no food, then conducted several experiments.

In one experiment, they placed similar numbers of black tokens in two jars, then added only a few orange tokens to one jar while giving the other a predominance of orange ones.

The birds then watched as the experimenter took one token from each jar and presented it to them in a closed fist. The keas would always go for the hand that came from the jar with the higher percentage of black tokens.

Until recently, humans and chimpanzees were thought to be the only creatures that could determine the relative frequency of an object.

In another experiment, the authors said, the parrots exhibited “domain-general intelligence,” the mixing of different streams of intelligence to enhance their skill at judging relative frequency. Scientists had believed this ability was exclusive to humans.

Aside from showing that both parrots and humans like games of chance, the study results could have implications for artificial intelligence.

That kea brains can support human-level reasoning raises questions about the degree to which AI research should take cues only from larger mammalian brains.

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