February 22, 2021

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NEED TO KNOW

AFGHANISTAN

No Exits

President Joe Biden has a few months to decide whether to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan. His two predecessors pledged to pull out of the Central Asian country where al Qaeda terrorists plotted the Sept. 11 attacks, prompting an American invasion and occupation that has lasted for 20 blood-drenched years. Both failed.

As the New York Times explained, Biden has a tough choice. He is weighing the financial and human cost of leaving a small number of soldiers to bolster US-supported leaders in the capital of Kabul or against the possibility that a total pullout of 2,500 US troops would effectively turn Afghanistan over to the Taliban, the ultra-orthodox Islamic militant group that controls much of the country.

A peace agreement between the US and Taliban aims for a total withdrawal on May 1. The Taliban would certainly reject additional US troops. The peace deal has been broken many times, however. While Taliban attacks on US forces might have subsided, fighting among the Taliban, the Afghan government and others continues.

The Taliban has killed scores of journalists and human rights activists, for example, according to the United Nations. Russia has also alleged that the US has broken the peace deal with airstrikes against the Taliban, Voice of America reported.

It’s no surprise, then, that NATO has delayed a decision on a possible withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan until Biden makes up his mind. German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, for example, recently said that diplomats would need to make more progress in peace negotiations between the Taliban and Afghan government before her government withdraws its 1,100 soldiers from the country. Otherwise, even more chaos will ensue. Others echoed her sentiments.

“The peace process is the best chance to end years of suffering and violence, and bring lasting peace,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told Politico. “But the talks are fragile, and progress is slow. So it is now imperative to reenergize the peace process.”

The fear is that Afghanistan will regress to become the breeding ground for terrorism that it was in the 1990s, wrote Foreign Policy magazine. That’s why Axios devoted an entire story to demonstrating why the world can’t simply ignore Afghanistan (and Iraq, too). The Taliban appears to be cooperating with al Qaeda militants, for example, undercutting hopes that they don’t want to export extremism. The US, on the other hand, has also been helping the Taliban fight the Islamic State, the Washington Post reported.

Things were so much easier when the enemy of one’s enemy was always one’s friend.

WANT TO KNOW

SPAIN

Bad Rap

Thousands of protesters clashed with police in Barcelona for a fifth night Saturday to protest against the arrest of a Spanish rapper whose controversial lyrics and tweets have sparked a debate about freedom of speech in the European Union nation, NBC News reported.

Anti-establishment singer Pablo Hasel was arrested last week on charges of insulting the Spanish monarchy and glorifying terrorism via songs and tweets that referred to ETA and Grapo, two now-defunct armed extremist groups in Spain.

Authorities detained him after the singer missed a deadline earlier this month to surrender to police to serve a nine-month jail term that was handed down in 2018.

His arrest sparked mass demonstrations across Spain by protesters who believe his arrest is a violation of his freedom of speech.

It also drew attention to the 2015 Public Security Law passed by the previous conservative-led government that makes it illegal to insult religion or the monarchy or to glorify banned armed groups.

Analysts said that the law was a “step backward” for freedom of expression and peaceful assembly in Spain. European officials also expressed concern that the far-reaching legislation could encourage other EU nations to enact similar laws to muzzle “legitimate dissent.”

Spain’s leftist government, meanwhile, announced plans to reform the law by introducing milder penalties and giving greater tolerance to artistic and cultural forms of expression.

MYANMAR

An Ill Wind Blows

Tens of thousands of people marched in the streets of Myanmar’s cities and towns Sunday to protest the recent military coup, a day after security forces killed at least two protesters during a demonstration in the country’s second-largest city of Mandalay, Al Jazeera reported.

Sunday’s rallies came after the country’s military junta received international condemnation for the killing of the protesters, a move that has raised fears of a wider crackdown against the peaceful demonstrations.

Myanmar has been gripped by protests for more than two weeks since the army seized control of the government on Feb. 1 and arrested a majority of its leaders, including civilian ruler Aung San Suu Kyi.

The military accused Suu Kyi’s party of rigging the November elections, which her ruling National League for Democracy won by a landslide over the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).

Many nations, including the United States and Britain, have imposed sanctions on the army leaders. Facebook, meanwhile, deleted the army’s main page, following the deadly violence over the weekend.

United Nations officials said Saturday that there were reports that the killings were committed by the army’s 33rd Light Infantry Division, which was responsible for the brutal campaign that forced 730,000 members of the Rohingya ethnic minority to flee to Bangladesh in 2017.

ARMENIA

An Act of Betrayal?

Thousands of Armenians rallied in the streets of the capital, Yerevan, over the weekend to demand the resignation of the country’s prime minister over his handling of a six-week war with Azerbaijan last year, Radio Free Europe reported.

In November, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian agreed to a Russia-brokered deal with Azerbaijan following a deadly conflict over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The region is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but has been ruled by ethnic Armenians – with support from Armenia – following a cease-fire that ended a 1994 war.

Under the new agreement, a part of Nagorno-Karabakh and all seven districts around it will go under Azerbaijani control, effectively ending 26 years of administration by Armenia.

Armenians and the country’s opposition condemned Pashinian’s move as an act of betrayal. Since November, they have been holding mass demonstrations to force him to hand over power to an interim government.

Pashinian – who came to power amid nationwide protests in 2018 – has refused to step down but raised the possibility of holding early parliamentary elections.

DISCOVERIES

Big Gamers

Pigs are very intelligent creatures, but maybe not to the level of manipulating other animals like in George Orwell’s “Animal Farm.”

The animals are able to do complex cognitive tasks, such as responding differently to various sounds, and can also master spatial learning tasks.

Now, scientists have found they are also pretty decent gamers, according to CNET.

Researchers recently tested if the mammals could learn to play video games in order to understand the cognitive processes of farm animals.

In their experiment, they taught four pigs how to use a joystick with their snouts in order to play a video game on a monitor in front of them.

Their findings showed that the mammals understood the link between moving the joystick and what was happening on the screen. They also proved to be very good players, despite lacking the opposable thumbs that help humans use controllers.

The team is hoping to further test swine intelligence by giving them touch-screen controls – which just might allow them to beat human high scores.

Although the sample was small, the study offers more insights into pig intelligence and how animals can learn new tasks.

“It is no small feat for an animal to grasp the concept that the behavior they are performing is having an effect elsewhere,” said lead author Candace Croney.

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COVID-19 Global Update

More than 180 nations worldwide have confirmed cases of the coronavirus. The following have the highest numbers worldwide as of 4 a.m. ET*:

  1. US: 28,134,143 (+0.20%)
  2. India: 11,005,850 (+0.13%)
  3. Brazil: 10,168,174 (+0.29%)
  4. UK: 4,130,447 (+0.31%)
  5. Russia: 4,127,574 (+0.25%)
  6. France: 3,597,540 (+0.01%)
  7. Spain: 3,133,122 (+0.00%)**
  8. Italy: 2,809,246 (+0.48%)
  9. Turkey: 2,638,422 (+0.25%)
  10. Germany: 2,394,515 (+0.26%)

Source: Johns Hopkins University

*Numbers change over 24 hours

**Numbers have been adjusted by affected country