Trump ousts Tillerson, will replace him as secretary of state with CIA chief Pompeo

President Trump has ousted Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and plans to nominate CIA Director Mike Pompeo to replace him as the nation’s top diplomat, orchestrating a major change to his national security team amid delicate outreach such as possible talks with North Korea, White House officials said Tuesday.

Trump last Friday asked Tillerson to step aside, and the embattled diplomat cut short a trip to Africa on Monday to return to Washington.

Tension between Trump and Tillerson has simmered for many months, but the president and his top diplomat reached a breaking point over the past week, officials said.

The reason for the latest rift was unclear, but Trump and Tillerson have often appeared at odds over policies such as the nuclear deal with Iran and the tone of U.S. diplomacy.

A spokesman for Tillerson said the secretary of state “had every intention of staying” in his job and was “unaware of the reason” for his firing.

Tillerson cut short his trip to Africa on Monday to return to Washington. “I felt like, look, I just need to get back,” he told reporters aboard his plane home. The White House, however, had told him the previous Friday that he would be dismissed, according to two administration officials.

The news was not conveyed in person by Trump.

At the White House on Tuesday, Trump said the move had been considered for “a long time.”
“We disagreed on things . . . the Iran deal,” Trump told reporters. “So we were not thinking the same. With Mike Pompeo, we have a similar thought process.”

Trump selected Gina Haspel — the deputy director at the CIA — to succeed Pompeo at the CIA. She would become the first woman to run the spy agency.

Both would need to be confirmed by the Senate at a time when the closely divided chamber has stalled on confirming dozens of Trump nominees.

In a statement issued to The Washington Post, Trump praised both Pompeo and Haspel.

“I am proud to nominate the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Mike Pompeo, to be our new Secretary of State,” Trump said. “Mike graduated first in his class at West Point, served with distinction in the U.S. Army, and graduated with Honors from Harvard Law School. He went on to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives with a proven record of working across the aisle.”

The president continued: “Gina Haspel, the Deputy Director of the CIA, will be nominated to replace Director Pompeo and she will be the CIA’s first-ever female director, a historic milestone. Mike and Gina have worked together for more than a year, and have developed a great mutual respect.”

Trump also had words of praise for Tillerson: “Finally, I want to thank Rex Tillerson for his service. A great deal has been accomplished over the last fourteen months, and I wish him and his family well.”

© Jonathan Ernst/Pool via AP U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson boards his plane to depart at the end of a five-country swing through Africa from Abuja, Nigeria, Monday, March 12, 2018.

A spokesman for Tillerson said the secretary of state has not spoken directly with Trump about the move.

“The secretary had every intention of staying because of the critical progress made in national security and other areas,” Steve Goldstein, undersecretary of public diplomacy for the State Department, said in a statement.

“He will miss his colleagues greatly at the Department of State, and the foreign ministers he’s worked with throughout the world,” Goldstein continued. “The secretary did not speak to the president, and is unaware of the reason. He is grateful for the opportunity to serve, and believes strongly that public service is a noble calling.”

The president has long clashed with Tillerson, who he believes is “too establishment” in his thinking. Trump felt it was important to make the change now, as he prepares for possible high-stakes talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, as well as upcoming trade negotiations, three White House officials said.

“I am deeply grateful to President Trump for permitting me to serve as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency and for this opportunity to serve as Secretary of State,” Pompeo said in a statement. “His leadership has made America safer and I look forward to representing him and the American people to the rest of the world to further America’s prosperity. Serving alongside the great men and women of the CIA, the most dedicated and talented public servants I have encountered, has been one of the great honors of my life.”

Haspel said in a statement that she was excited about her promotion.

“After 30 years as an officer of the Central Intelligence Agency, it has been my honor to serve as its Deputy Director alongside Mike Pompeo for the past year,” she said. “I am grateful to President Trump for the opportunity, and humbled by his confidence in me, to be nominated to be the next Director of the Central Intelligence Agency.”

On the flight from Nigeria, Tillerson appeared to break with the White House in his assessment of the poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain. He singled out Russia as responsible for the attack, echoing the finger-pointing of the British government.

“It came from Russia,” Tillerson said, according to the Associated Press. “I cannot understand why anyone would take such an action. But this is a substance that is known to us and does not exist widely.”

Earlier Monday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders condemned the attack as “reckless, indiscriminate and irresponsible,” and expressed solidarity with Britain, but would not say whether the United States believes Russia was behind it.

Tillerson was especially frustrated when Trump last Thursday unilaterally agreed to the meeting with Kim while Tillerson was traveling abroad in Africa, according to officials familiar with his thinking.

Tillerson had long expressed interest in a diplomatic solution to the nuclear standoff with North Korea, and was upset to have been left totally out of the loop when Trump decided to move forward, according to a White House official.

Foggy Bottom was also acutely aware — and chagrined — that when Pompeo appeared on television shows this past Sunday to explain the North Korea developments, he did not mention Tillerson.

Pompeo long has been mentioned as Tillerson’s most likely replacement. As CIA director, the former Republican lawmaker from Kansas developed a warm relationship with Trump, often delivering the President’s Daily Brief to Trump in person and racing over to the West Wing at a moment’s notice to field the president’s queries on a range of topics.

Last November, the White House readied a plan to replace Tillerson with Pompeo, and Trump seriously considered making the move but was persuaded to keep the current team in place.
Pompeo often is found in a host of meetings that do not necessarily deeply involve his agency, simply because Trump likes him, said one White House official.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) was initially mentioned as a replacement for Pompeo, but Trump opted to promote from within by elevating Haspel.

Tillerson’s exit had been so widely expected that the rumors were given a nickname: Rexit. Speculation about his ouster has come in waves, including in October after NBC News reported that Tillerson had called Trump a “moron.”

Tillerson, 65, spent his career at ExxonMobil, climbing the ranks at the oil giant to become chief executive officer, where he cut deals across the Middle East and in Mexico. Having never worked in government before being named secretary of state, he struggled to adapt to Washington’s ways and the administration’s culture of backstabbing.

Tillerson emerged as one of the strongest voices in the administration critical of Russia. For months, he has been saying Russia clearly meddled in the 2016 U.S. election, even as Trump shied away from any critical remarks.

Trump seemed to resent pressure to stay the course on such issues as China’s trade practices, the war in Afghanistan and the Iran nuclear deal, those people said.

Tillerson pushed Trump to preserve the Iran nuclear deal, at least for now, with a July pronouncement that Iran was meeting its end of the bargain. Trump said in a Wall Street Journal interview that he regretted making that determination and strongly suggested he would not go along with another such certification of compliance due in October.

Although Tillerson supported the approach to the war in Afghanistan that Trump announced last week, he felt no need to frame U.S. goals in the same maximal terms as the commander in chief. Where Trump proclaimed on Aug. 21 that “our troops will fight to win,” Tillerson laid out a much more modest agenda.

Josh Dawsey, John Hudson and Carol Morello contributed to this report.

In Peace Overture, Afghan President Offers Passports to Taliban

KABUL, Afghanistan — President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan renewed a call on Wednesday for the Taliban to join peace talks, offering to treat the insurgent group as a legitimate political party, though it has repeatedly rejected similar proposals.

In the latest overture, Mr. Ghani said his government would provide the Taliban with an office in the capital, Kabul; passports for its members; help resettling militants’ families; and assistance in scrubbing the names of top commanders from international terrorist blacklists.

“We believe in providing a peaceful and respectful life for all Afghans, including those Taliban who leave violence behind,” Mr. Ghani said. He spoke at a peace conference, called the Kabul Process, attended by more than 20 nations but not the Taliban.

There appears little chance of any breakthrough, but the Afghan government made the offer to demonstrate to an international audience that it is willing to negotiate, and to encourage those participating in the conference to pressure the Taliban to accept. The government is under pressure to offer incentives as the United States increases military pressure.

The Taliban’s main faction has insisted on direct negotiations with the United States and dismisses the American-backed government in Kabul as a puppet.

The Taliban has yet to respond to Mr. Ghani’s proposal. But in a statement on Monday, they said they had asked American officials to talk directly to their political office, and not through the Afghan government. The statement also said that “military strategies which have repeatedly been tested in Afghanistan over the past 17 years will only intensify and prolong the war.”

Under President Trump, the American strategy for ending the war has entailed expanding a campaign of airstrikes and putting pressure on Pakistan to force the Taliban to negotiate with the Afghan government.

American commanders have claimed progress, but only in measures that are classified. A Pentagon study made public this month showed that the Afghan government controlled 18 percent of the country’s districts at the end of last year and had influence over an additional 38 percent.

While the insurgents dominate only a sliver of the country, they still hold substantial sway. The Taliban collect taxes from businesses and run a shadow judicial system for settling disputes, preferred by some Afghans over the corrupt government courts.

In one measure of the Taliban’s reach, cellphone companies comply with the group’s request to halt service around 5 p.m. in parts of the country, including in Kunduz, a major city, lest the insurgents blow up transmission towers. The blackouts demonstrate influence, and the Taliban say they also serve a practical purpose of preventing government informants from calling in tips about their nighttime movements.

Around dusk on Tuesday, insurgents attacked a checkpoint in Kandahar, in southern Afghanistan, killing five police officers, and later stopped a bus and captured 19 passengers as hostages, according to a police spokesman.

The peace talks known as the Kabul Process began last year and are intended to demonstrate unity in the international community for negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban. The United Nations also backs this approach.

Pakistan given three-month reprieve over terrorist financing watchlist: minister

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Pakistan has been given a three-month reprieve by a global watchdog over a U.S.-led motion to put the South Asian country on a terrorist financing watchlist, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif said late on Tuesday.

Pakistan has been scrambling in recent months to avoid being added to a list of countries deemed non-compliant with anti-money laundering and terrorist financing regulations by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), a measure that officials fear could hurt its economy.

FATF member states have been meeting this week in Paris, where it was expected that they would decide on a U.S. motion, backed by Britain, France and Germany, to have Pakistan added to the so-called ‘grey list’ of countries which are not doing enough to comply with terrorist-funding regulations.

Asif, who is currently on a visit to Russia, tweeted late on Tuesday that Pakistan’s “efforts have paid (off)” during a Feb. 20 meeting on the U.S.-led motion, suggesting there was “no consensus for nominating Pakistan”.

He also suggested the meeting proposed a “three months pause” and asked for the Asia Pacific Group, which is part of FATF, to consider “another report in June”.

Pakistan earlier this year submitted a report about the progress it had made in curbing terrorist financing, but Washington submitted its motion before the Pakistan report could be discussed at the Paris hearing.

“Grateful to friends who helped,” Asif added.

Two other Pakistani officials confirmed Pakistan had received a reprieve of three months.

Washington has been threatening to get tough with Islamabad over its alleged ties with Islamist militants, and last month President Donald Trump’s administration suspended aid worth about $2 billion.

Islamabad, which denies assisting militants in Afghanistan and India, has reacted angrily to U.S. threats of further punitive measures.

However, Pakistan’s government is concerned the FATF decision could hurt its banking sector, causing real financial pain to the economy just as a national election looms.

Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Gareth Jones

Battle for Kabul Has Begun


WASHINGTON — Taliban attacks on two consecutive weekends in Kabul, which have killed hundreds of people, including Americans, have occurred in the midst of stepped-up efforts by the Trump administration to find a way out of the 16-year-old Afghan imbroglio.

While the Trump administration has doubled its troop level in Afghanistan to 16,000, the U.S. Central Command led by Gen. Joseph Votel has dispatched military advisers that are guiding Afghan forces to stay on the offensive before the fighting season with the Taliban begins in spring.

That runs contrary to neighboring Pakistan’s position, which says it has in recent times intensified its push for talks with the Taliban leadership.

But disregarding Islamabad’s offer, the Trump administration has accused Pakistan of playing a “double game” that foremost includes giving refuge to the Haqqani network — the wealthy and well-connected Afghan Taliban who migrated to Pakistan 40 years ago.

A New Year tweet by Trump accused Pakistan of “lies and deceit” in taking U.S. money while harboring the Taliban, which makes ferocious attacks on NATO forces in Afghanistan. Frustrated officials in Washington have stopped $255 million aid to Islamabad.

In mid-January, Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, articulated Trump’s policy in Kabul when she told a U.N. Security Council meeting that Pakistan should stop giving refuge to the Afghan Taliban militants.

Exactly a week later, the Taliban laid a 13-hour siege on Kabul’s Hotel Intercontinental, where they killed and wounded dozens of guests and set the hotel on fire. The casual manner in which the militants ate food inside the hotel — targeting foreigners at will — showed their ability to strike the protected enclave at a time and place of their choosing.

Barely was Afghanistan out of its state of shock when the next weekend on Jan. 27, a suicide bomber used an ambulance to kill and wound hundreds of people in a crowded part of Kabul. While Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid claimed that police had been killed, eyewitnesses said the victims were mainly civilians.

Following the hotel attack, a retired Pakistani brigadier, Ishaq Khattak, rejected Afghan and U.S. allegations that the Haqqani network waged the attacks from inside the sanctuaries provided by Pakistan.

Still, pressed on whether the attack may be part of Pakistan’s strategy to up the ante in the final settlement with the Taliban, Khattak said it was the U.S. that needed to “change its line of thinking” and consider why it was unable to bring peace in Afghanistan even after 16 years.

Marvin Weinbaum, a former official in the State Department, says that the U.S. does not buy this line. Instead, he says the Trump administration plans to enforce its hard-line strategy “to keep up the military pressure to create conditions where the Taliban are ready to talk on U.S. terms.”

In keeping with this policy, the U.S. on Jan. 24 unilaterally made a drone attack in Pakistan. The attack hit the Orakzai agency’s Dapa Mamozai village and killed Haqqani network commander Tariq Mahmood.

Mahmood was also known by his warrior name, Khowarai. According to NBC News, he had led fighters in multiple attacks on Afghan security forces and U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. Another Haqqani commander injured in the drone attack was taken away for investigation into the Jan, 20 terrorist attack that killed dozens of people in Hotel Intercontinental in Kabul.

The Pakistan Foreign Office expressed displeasure at the “unilateral” drone strike by the Resolute Support Mission, claiming it had “targeted an Afghan camp.” Political agents in the FATA confirmed, however, that the drone attack was on a single housing unit and did not kill any civilians.

Author Shuja Nawaz, distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center, says that the U.S. was able to undertake the precise drone attack because Western countries such as Britain and France have increased their intelligence agents in the border areas since 2004.

Nawaz says the Haqqanis have their sanctuaries inside Afghanistan’s borders with Pakistan — Pakhtia, Pakhtika and Khost — enabling them to easily cross over to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) that border Afghanistan. He says he regrets that Pakistan lost its opportunity last year to expel the Haqqani network to Afghanistan.

Pakistan says it has been trying to nudge the U.S. toward talks. On Jan. 15, Islamabad tried to use its “soft power” by hosting an Afghan Taliban delegation from Qatar to meet with the head of the National Islamic Front of Afghanistan — Pir Syed Hamid Gilani.

Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, head of the Afghan Taliban and third in line from Mullah Omar, reportedly gave his blessings to the meeting.

Weinbaum says the Taliban’s demand that they want to “talk to the U.S.” is an oft-used strategy that is not going to fly. He says that by so doing, the Taliban merely seeks to reiterate that they want to see the “Americans out of Afghanistan.”

“Once the U.S. is out, then the Taliban, without stating it, will go — whether it’s a matter of months or a year — to scoring a military victory,” he said.

According to Nawaz, Pakistan’s continuing failure to push the Afghan Taliban out of FATA could lead the U.S. to send in troops from across the border to take them out, which for Pakistan would be a “red line.”

Meanwhile, Nawaz predicts that before using a last resort such as “declaring Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism,” the U.S. will use “pressure points” such as the IMF, World Bank and international bodies to get Pakistan to cooperate.

Experts believe that the real test will come during the Afghan spring offensive, for which the U.S. is recruiting younger commanders, while bringing in new equipment and advisers — setting the stage to fight the Taliban in order to speed up the endgame.

U.S. Drone Strike Kills Militants in Pakistan but Angers Its Government

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A leader of the militant Haqqani network and two of his aides were killed Wednesday in an American drone strike in northwestern Pakistan, an attack that was denounced by the Pakistani government.

The attack took place on Wednesday morning in the Speen Thal Dapa Mamozai area of the Kurram tribal region and was directed at a house that the Pakistani authorities said was being used by Afghan refugees. The militant commander, Nasir Mehmood, who was also known as Khawari, and two of his aides were killed.

The Haqqani network, affiliated with the Taliban and designated as a terrorist group by the United States, has carried out numerous deadly attacks in Afghanistan in recent years. The presence of its leaders and militants in Pakistan and its links with the country’s military intelligence agency have long caused friction between United States and Pakistan.

The Kurram region has been used frequently by Haqqani network fighters to cross into neighboring Afghanistan.
American officials have repeatedly demanded that the Pakistanis take action against the Haqqani network, but Pakistani officials deny that the militants have any organized presence inside the country.

Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned Wednesday’s drone strike as a violation of the country’s sovereignty.
“Pakistan has continued to emphasize to the U.S. the importance of sharing actionable intelligence so that appropriate action is taken against terrorists by our forces within our territory,” the ministry said in a statement.

“Such unilateral actions, as that of today, are detrimental to the spirit of cooperation between the two countries in the fight against terrorism.”

Pakistani military and civil officials insisted that Wednesday’s attack struck an Afghan refugee camp, which they said validated their stance that Afghan refugees be sent back to Afghanistan.

At least 2.7 million Afghan refugees are living in various parts of the country, and Pakistani military officials say the refugee camps and settlements provide shelter to Taliban and Haqqani militants.

“There are no organized militant sanctuaries inside Pakistan anymore,” said Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor, a Pakistani military spokesman. “Afghan refugees, including 1.2 million unregistered, are difficult to trace. The militants morph into refugees. This is the reason we feel repatriation of Afghan refugees is essential.”

Trump’s Twitter Attack On Pakistan Is Met With Both Anger And Support In South Asia

In one of his first tweets of the new year, U.S. President Donald Trump accused Pakistan of deceiving the United States and harboring terrorists while accepting billions of dollars in foreign aid, an equation that would no longer be tolerated.

Along with the tweet came reports that the U.S. is likely to withhold more than $250 million in aid that it delayed sending to Islamabad in August, due to Pakistan’s perceived failure to crack down more effectively on terror groups.

Trump’s message ignited a flurry of reactions online from those concerned with foreign policy in the region.

Ire in Pakistan
Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif told a TV channel that the country is ready to publicly provide every detail of the U.S. aid that it has received. He also tweeted that it would “let the world know the truth”:

He later followed up with a second tweet challenging Trump to verify his $33 billion figure:
In a similar vein, Pakistan’s Defense Minister Khurram Dastgir Khan tweeted that the U.S. had given Pakistan “nothing but invective & mistrust.”

On Monday, U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan David Hale was summoned to the foreign ministry over Trump’s tweet.

Support in India and Afghanistan
In India and Afghanistan in the other hand, Trump’s tweet received support and celebration.

It made front page news in India, since Pakistan has long been considered India’s most bitter adversary.

“The Trump administration decision has abundantly vindicated India’s stand…as far as the role of Pakistan is concerned in perpetrating terrorism,” said Jitendra Singh, a Minister of State in India’s Prime Minister’s Office.

Similarly, the Afghan ambassador to the U.S. Hamdullah Mohib and former Afghan President Hamid Karzai both welcomed the tweet.

China defends Pakistan
When asked about Trump’s criticism, China responded by coming to Pakistan’s defense, praising its counter-terrorism efforts: “Pakistan has made… outstanding contribution to the global cause of counter terrorism.

The international community should acknowledge that,” said Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang, calling China and Pakistan “all weather partners.”

China is currently investing heavily in Pakistan as part of the $62-billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project.

Trump’s wavering stance on Pakistan
This is not the first time Trump has condemned Pakistan with accusations of harboring terrorists. In a speech in August, he said: “We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organizations…It has much to lose by continuing to harbor terrorists.”

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has also confronted Pakistan on “inaction against terrorist groups within their own borders.” Indeed, Pakistan has already seen millions of dollars of U.S. aid held back for allegedly not taking a proactive stance against the Taliban-allied Haqqani network.

However, in stark contrast to his January 1 tweet, in October last year, Trump lauded what he saw as Pakistan’s new found respect for the U.S.:

This came after American Caitlan Coleman and her Canadian husband, Joshua Boyle, were freed as Taliban prisoners.

Interestingly, in its report last week investigating the most recent instance of the likelihood of the U.S. holding back aid to Pakistan, The New York Times suggested that one of the reasons was that while the Canadian-American family was freed, U.S. officials had been denied access to one of their abductors — an instance that exemplified a larger unwillingness from Pakistan to cooperate on counter-terrorism operations.

Iranians chant ‘death to dictator’ in biggest unrest since crushing of protests in 2009

At least two protesters were killed in the city of Doroud, in Iran’s western Lorestan province, as riot police opened fire to contain a group of people said to have been trying to occupy the local governor’s office. Clashes between demonstrators and anti-riot police became violent in some cities as the demonstrations spread.

The two men killed in Doroud have been identified as Hamzeh Lashni and Hossein Reshno, according to an Iranian journalist with the Voice of America’s Persian service who spoke to their families.

Videos posted online showed their bodies on the ground, covered in blood. Another video showed protesters carrying their bodies to safety. At least two others were also reported to have been killed in Doroud, but this could not be independently verified.

Early on Sunday, Iran’s interior minister warned protestors that their actions will have consequences. “Those who damage public property, disrupt order and break the law must be responsible for their behaviour and pay the price,” Abdolrahman Rahmani Fazli said on state television.

Elsewhere, it appeared that the security forces held people back with sporadic use of teargas. The number of people joining the protests increased as night fell, making it difficult for the authorities to target those taking part.

“Death to Khamenei” chants, calling for the demise of the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, featured in many demonstrations. Videos posted on social media from Tehran and at least one other city – Abhar in Zanjan province – showed protesters taking down banners depicting him.

Such chants and acts of resistance are unprecedented in a country where the supreme leader holds ultimate authority and criticising him is taboo.

There were also chants in support of the late shah. The scale of protests in the provinces appeared bigger than those witnessed in 2009, but in Tehran there have so far been fewer people on the streets than there were then.

Donald Trump had earlier used Twitter to warn the Iranian government against a crackdown as thousands of pro-government Iranians also marched in long-scheduled protests in support of the leadership.

But, for the third day running, ordinary Iranians, frustrated by the feeble economy, rising inflation and lack of opportunity, defied warnings against “illegal gatherings”.

“Everyone is fed up with the situation, from the young to the old,” said Ali, who lives near the city of Rasht, where there were large protests on Friday. He asked not to be identified.

“Every year thousands of students graduate, but there are no jobs for them. Fathers are also exhausted because they don’t earn enough to provide for their family.”

Students near Tehran University chanted “death to the dictator”, and clashes with security forces followed. It was not clear how many were detained in the capital on Saturday, but scores of protesters are believed to have been arrested in western Kermanshah and eastern Mashhad, the conservative second city of Iran, where the latest unrest began.

Although small-scale economic protests about failed banks or shrinking pensions are not unusual in Iran, it is uncommon for demonstrations to escalate across the country or to mix political slogans with other complaints.

“It spread very quickly in a way that nobody had really anticipated,” said Ali Ansari, a professor of Iranian history at the University of St Andrews. “It’s the biggest demonstration since 2009. The widespread nature of it and provincial nature of it has been quite a surprise.”

He thinks the protests were originally sanctioned by hardliners seeking to undermine the country’s moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, but says their apparently spontaneous organisation makes it hard to predict how they will evolve.

“I think they started something and then they lost control of it; it has taken a life of its own. We have to see if it gains traction. The trouble is that there is no organisation. I don’t know what the outcome will be.”

The state broadcaster Irib covered the protests briefly and they featured on the front pages of many newspapers, unlike in 2009, when most news of protests was kept out of official media.

The Revolutionary Guard, whose Basij militia coordinated the 2009 crackdown, warned that it would “not allow the country to be hurt”. But leaders in Tehran, already facing a government in Washington hostile to them and friendly to the country’s regional rival, Saudi Arabia, know they are under close scrutiny.

On Twitter, Trump wrote: “Many reports of peaceful protests by Iranian citizens fed up with regime’s corruption and its squandering of the nation’s wealth to fund terrorism abroad. Iranian govt should respect their people’s rights, including right to express themselves. The world is watching! #IranProtests.”

That intervention is unlikely to go down well in Iran, where the US is widely believed to be seeking regime change. In June, the US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, told the US Congress that America was working towards “support of those elements inside of Iran that would lead to a peaceful transition of that government”.

There are already deep frustrations that unilateral US financial sanctions have made most banks wary of processing money for Iran or extending credit to its firms. The 2015 nuclear deal led to the lifting of international sanctions so that Iran could sell oil again on international markets but, without access to capital, it is struggling to unleash the growth that Rouhani and his supporters hoped would follow.

The economic problems this creates are serious. Youth unemployment stands at about 40%, more than 3 million Iranians are jobless and the prices of some basic food items, such as poultry and eggs, have recently soared by almost half.

“This has started from the bottom of the society, from the less fortunate,” Reza, a Mashhad resident, said. “This is not middle-class protesting, this is lower-class demonstrating, people of the suburbs. Many are fed up with situation.”

Frustrated U.S. Might Withhold $255 Million in Aid From Pakistan

WASHINGTON, Dec 29 — When Pakistani forces freed a Canadian-American family this fall held captive by militants, they also captured one of the abductors. United States officials saw a potential windfall: He was a member of the Taliban-linked Haqqani network who could perhaps provide valuable information about at least one other American hostage.

The Americans demanded access to the man, but Pakistani officials rejected those requests, the latest disagreement in the increasingly dysfunctional relationship between the countries.

Now, the Trump administration is strongly considering whether to withhold $255 million in aid that it had delayed sending to Islamabad, according to American officials, as a show of dissatisfaction with Pakistan’s broader intransigence toward confronting the terrorist networks that operate there.

The administration’s internal debate over whether to deny Pakistan the money is a test of whether President Trump will deliver on his threat to punish Islamabad for failing to cooperate on counterterrorism operations.

Relations between the United States and Pakistan, long vital for both, have chilled steadily since the president declared over the summer that Pakistan “gives safe haven to agents of chaos, violence and terror.”

The United States, which has provided Pakistan more than $33 billion in aid since 2002, said in August that it was withholding the $255 million until Pakistan did more to crack down on internal terrorist groups.

Senior administration officials met this month to decide what to do about the money, and American officials said a final decision could be made in the coming weeks.

The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the sensitive discussions, did not detail what conditions Pakistan would have to meet to receive the aid.

It was not clear how the United States found out about the militant’s arrest, but an American drone had been monitoring the kidnappers as they moved deeper into Pakistan.

Caitlan Coleman, an American, and her Canadian husband, Joshua Boyle, were freed along with their children in an October raid after five years in captivity.

Pakistani troops confronted Haqqani militants as they ferried the family across the tribal lands of northwest Pakistan.

The Trump administration has foreshadowed a cutoff in recent days with harsher language.

Last week, in announcing his national security strategy, Mr. Trump again singled out Pakistan for criticism. “We make massive payments every year to Pakistan,” he said. “They have to help.”

Vice President Mike Pence reinforced that message in a visit to Afghanistan just before Christmas, telling cheering American troops that “President Trump has put Pakistan on notice.”

The reaction of his audience was notable, analysts said, since the Pentagon has historically been one of Pakistan’s defenders in Washington because of its longstanding ties to the Pakistani military.

Pakistan, however, has few friends in Mr. Trump’s National Security Council.

Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser, served in Afghanistan, where he saw firsthand how Pakistan meddled in its neighbor’s affairs. Lisa Curtis, the council’s senior director for South and Central Asia, brought critical views about Pakistan from her previous post at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

In a report she wrote in February with Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s former ambassador to Washington, the two called for the administration to “avoid viewing and portraying Pakistan as an ally.” If Pakistan did not take steps to show its commitment to America’s counterterrorism goals, they wrote, Mr. Trump should strip it of its status as a major non-NATO ally.

Such a step would be more punitive than withholding the $255 million in State Department assistance known as Foreign Military Financing, Mr. Haqqani said in an interview, because it would deprive Pakistan of access to military equipment. He said Pakistani officials were bracing for some kind of aid cutoff.

Pakistan’s military, he said, still views its accommodation of the Haqqani network as in its security interest.

To overcome that, the Trump administration would have to pursue other, more punishing measures, either by imposing targeted sanctions on the government or removing it from the list of non-NATO allies.

“Pakistan can withstand a cutoff in American aid,” Mr. Haqqani said. “It would have to be followed by something else to make Pakistan believe that Mr. Trump means business.”

In July, the Pentagon said it would withhold $50 million in military reimbursements for Pakistan because the country had not taken “sufficient action” against the Haqqani network.

A State Department official said Pakistan’s actions will ultimately determine the course of “security assistance in the future.” The official said conversations with Pakistan are continuing and declined to provide further comment.

The Pakistani government did not respond to a message seeking comment.

After Ms. Coleman, Mr. Boyle and their children were freed, the Pakistani military made no mention of the captured Haqqani operative.

Instead, the military released a statement saying the operation’s “success underscores the importance of timely intelligence sharing and Pakistan’s continued commitment towards fighting this menace through cooperation between two forces against a common enemy.”

Mr. Trump said it was “a positive moment for our country’s relationship with Pakistan.”

American officials are eager to learn what the militant knows about Kevin King, an American university professor who was kidnapped along with Timothy Weeks, an Australian citizen, in August 2016. Mr. King is believed to be alive but ill and American officials are hopeful that he and Mr. Weeks might be released.

Another American, Paul Overby, vanished in 2014 in Afghanistan. Mr. Overby was trying to interview the leader of the Haqqani network when he disappeared.

Gen. Joseph L. Votel, the head of the Pentagon’s Central Command, which oversees Pakistan and Afghanistan, declined to provide any details on the Haqqani operative who was seized other than to say he was “probably pretty important” and that any militants involved in hostage-taking were “significant.”

General Votel would not say whether the Trump administration is considering withholding aid from Pakistan to prod Islamabad to improve its counterterrorism cooperation.

“What we’re trying to do is to talk to Pakistan about this, and not try to communicate with them through public messaging,” General Votel said in an interview.

Trump looks to the sky to force Taliban to the table

KABUL: The war in Afghanistan may be entering its 17th year, but screams of military jet engines in the twinkling skies above Bagram Airfield show no sign of quieting.

This city-scale military base just north of Kabul has — like similar facilities in Kandahar and Jalalabad — become central to Donald Trump´s promise to succeed where his predecessors failed, and end the Afghan war on favorable terms.

Trump concluded a months-long strategy review in August. During that soul searching, the White House came to believe that the Obama administration underutilized America´s total aerial superiority.

The skies, they believe, could hold one key to unlocking the conflict.

Trump will likely send a few thousand more troops to the country — a development sure to grab the headlines — but the days of having 100,000 US military personnel in the country are over.

The ground war is likely to fall more and more to Afghan government forces, and early political efforts will be trained, in part, on getting Pakistan to stop providing safe havens for jihadists across the border.

But the first tangible moves have been a significant increase in the tempo and intensity of airstrikes, an effort to take the war to the Taliban.

The US, which is the only foreign force in Afghanistan carrying out airstrikes, targeted the Taliban and Islamic State group militants with 751 bombs and missiles in September, the month after the strategy review.

That was up 50 percent from August and the highest since October 2010, according to US Air Force data.

US Air Force personnel on the ground in Afghanistan report a significant shift in how airpower is being used.

Before, jets patrolled for up to four hours waiting to provide air support to ground forces. But they often returned to Bagram without having fired a shot in anger.

Chocks away
Today, according to Captain Lyndsey Horn, they are much more likely to come back having engaged the Taliban, the Islamic State group or having targeted an opium production facility.

“For a long time here we stagnated,” said a second officer. “The effects so far are positive, the long term effects are harder to tell.”

Vice President Mike Pence, who on Thursday became the most senior member of the Trump administration to visit Afghanistan, says the strategy is starting to make a difference in Taliban morale.

“President Ghani informed me that in 2017 we have eliminated more senior leaders of the Taliban than were eliminated in all the prior years combined,” Pence said after his meeting in Kabul.

“They have begun to see a sea change in the attitudes among the Taliban” he added. The Taliban “are now beginning to question their future, and our hope is, as we take the fight to the enemy… that eventually the enemy will tire of losing and will be willing to come forward.”

Lofty claims of progress are hard to verify, and the Taliban were able to lift their momentum even after the deaths of their first two chiefs, including Mullah Akhtar Mansour who was killed by a US drone strike in 2015 ordered by Trump´s predecessor Barack Obama.

Afghan forces, beset by desertions and corruption, have seen casualties soar to what a US watchdog has described as “shockingly high” levels since NATO forces officially ended their combat mission in 2014, and the figures are now classified in an effort to save morale.

The Taliban continue to control or contest 45 percent of the country´s territory, according to a September analysis by the respected Long War Journal, and have stepped up raids on security installations across Afghanistan.

No recent arrival at Bagram, and certainly not Trump´s Afghan-savvy former generals who had a hand in the new strategy — namely National Security Advisor HR McMaster and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis — believe the Taliban is about to surrender wholesale.

But the White House hopes overwhelming force will exacerbate divisions in the Taliban ranks and help lure more members to the negotiating table, where America´s diplomats will be waiting.

Officials admit the US strategy is not without risk, and the longer it runs the more costs will accrue.

More bombing almost invariably means more civilian casualties, which could further mobilize Afghans against the United States.

And while the US recently wiped out 10 Taliban labs used to process opium into heroin, counter-narcotics experts believe three million Afghan farmers make their living from the crop, which has been described as “a low-risk crop in a high-risk environment.”

UN Jerusalem vote by country: What countries voted against US call on Israel’s capital?

An overwhelming majority of United Nations member states opposed the United States regarding the disputed status of Jerusalem on Thursday.

In what was seen as a massive blow to the US, a total of 128 of the 193-member UN General Assembly agreed to resolve the Holy City dispute through “negotiations in line with relevant UN resolutions”.

The vote followed President’s Trump decision on December 6 to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
The official UN position is that East Jerusalem is part of the occupied Palestinian territory – a sore point of contention for Israel. In 2008 the UN called on for a dual-capital solution.

US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said that the vote “disrespected” America and President Trump
Ms Haley later announced that the US will go ahead with moving its embassy to the disputed city regardless of the vote.

She said: “That is what the American people want us to do and it is the right thing to do.

“This vote will make a difference in how Americans look at the UN.

Adding that the US will “remember this day” when it was “singled out for attack”.

The UK, France, China and Germany were among those who voted in favour of the non-binding motion. Only nine voted against and 35 abstained.

Jerusalem vote: A majority of UN states voted in favour of the motion against the US

Here are the countries that voted in favour of the UN motion:
A: Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, Andorra, Angola, Armenia, Austria, Azerbaijan
B: Bahrain, Bangladesh, Barbados, Belarus, Belgium, Belize, Bolivia, Botswana, Brazil, Brunei, Bulgaria, Burkina Faso, Burundi
C: Cabo Verde, Cambodia, Chad, Chile, China, Comoros, Congo, Costa Rica, Cote d’Ivoire, Cuba, Cyprus, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), Denmark, Djibouti, Dominica
E: Ecuador, Egypt, Eritrea, Estonia, Ethiopia
F: Finland, France
G: Gabon, Gambia, Germany, Ghana, Greece, Grenada, Guinea, Guyana
I: Iceland, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Ireland, Italy
J: Japan, Jordan
K: Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan
L: Laos, Lebanon, Liberia, Libya, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg
M:Madagascar, Malaysia, Maldives, Mali, Malta, Mauritania, Mauritius, Monaco, Montenegro, Morocco, Mozambique
N: Namibia, Nepal, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Niger, Nigeria, Norway
O: Oman
P: Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Peru, Portugal
Q: Qatar
R: Republic of Korea (South Korea), Russia
S: Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Serbia, Seychelles, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, Somalia, South Africa, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Suriname, Sweden, Switzerland, Syria
T: Tajikistan, Thailand, The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Tunisia, Turkey
U: United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, United Republic of Tanzania, Uruguay, Uzbekistan
V: Venezuela, Vietnam
Y: Yemen
Z: Zimbabwe