• Paul Whelan, a 50-year-old former U.S. Marine, was found guilty of espionage charges and sentenced to 16 years in Russian prison after what he called a “sham trial!” behind closed doors. Whelan’s lawyer says his client thought the incriminating flash drive found on him when he was arrested in 2018 contained family photos (we don’t know the prosecution’s side of the story because the trial was hidden from reporters).


  • A great AP article pasted below describes a weekly pro-U.S. Facebook Live event that the U.S. Chargé d’ Affaires for Venezuela, James Story, hosts from Colombia about Venezuela.


  • SecState Pompeo will meet Chinese officials in Hawaii “early this week” to discuss a wide range of issues that have been causing tension between the U.S. and China—including perhaps coronavirus, China’s new national security law for Hong Kong, and more.


  • A U.S. drone strike in Idlib, Syria reportedly killed two Al Qaeda leaders—perhaps including al Zarqawi’s brother-in-law and close friend, Abu al Qassam al Urduni.


  • Both the government and the Taliban have agreed to hold intra-Afghan talks in Doha, although no date has been set yet. According to reports, talks could start as soon as the end of next week (within a week of the two sides resolving differences over prisoner release plans).

  • The Taliban and local security forces are clashing in northeastern Kapisa.

  • A Reuters story pasted below describes Afghanistan’s Works Progress Administration-like effort to hire workers made jobless by coronavirus lockdowns to help improve Kabul’s water infrastructure.


  • The death of Rayshard Brooks—the black man killed by police after skirmishing with them in Atlanta on Friday—was ruled a homicide, and protesters gathered at a police precinct near where he died.

  • A U.S. Air Force F-15C Eagle crashed into the North Sea during a training mission. One pilot was on board and is missing.

Afghanistan hires lockdown jobless to boost Kabul's water and trees (Reuters)

Gul Mohammad was making a good living as a private van-driver, until Afghanistan went into lockdown to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus and his work dried up.

Now, instead of ferrying commuters around Kabul, Mohammad, 49, brings a flask of green tea to a site outside the capital and spends his days helping dig a series of 2-metre-long (6.5-foot) trenches aimed at saving the city from a water crisis.

As lockdown measures imposed in March take their toll on Afghanistan’s workforce, the government is employing more than 40,000 jobless workers to rehabilitate groundwater supplies for its fast-growing capital.

“The good thing is that the needy people from nearby are hired to just walk to work and get regular pay when there are no jobs in the city due to coronavirus,” said Mohammad.

Afghanistan has joined a growing group of countries that are turning to “green stimulus” projects to address two urgent challenges at once: keeping the economy running through the pandemic and tackling climate change.

Kabul’s groundwater supplies - its primary source of drinking water - have been over-exploited, putting the city of up to 7 million people at risk of severe shortages, warn water experts.

A study published in May by the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU), an independent think-tank, calculated that the city’s groundwater levels had decreased by about 1 meter per year over the past two decades.

Some parts of central Kabul have seen drops of as much as 30 meters over 14 years, the study said.

The water project, run by the state’s National Development Corporation, aims to boost groundwater levels while also increasing greenery to improve water and air quality, spokesman Mohammad Mustafa Naveed told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.


Globally, about 1.6 billion workers in the informal economy, representing nearly half of the world’s labourforce, will likely lose their livelihoods due to the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, the International Labour Organization said in April.

Planned to run for at least a year, the Kabul water project is paying laborers at least 300 afghanis ($3.90) per day to dig close to 150,000 trenches, along with 17 small dams and spillways, on the outskirts of the mountainous Afghan capital.

The network of trenches focused on six locations will store and absorb the rainwater and snowmelt Afghanistan gets in the winter and spring, but which is usually wasted through flash flooding, Naveed explained.

“In the second phase of the project, 13 million saplings will be planted along these trenches and thousands more people will be employed to plant and preserve them,” he added.

The trees will be mainly local species that require less water, such as pistachio and pine nut, Naveed said.

While climate change has led to more frequent short rainstorms, the number of longer rainfall events needed to gradually recharge groundwater has decreased, said the author of the AREU study, Najibullah Sadid.

Rising temperatures cause higher rates of evaporation, which also shrinks groundwater supplies, noted Sadid, a researcher at the University of Stuttgart in Germany.

In addition, the study pointed to Kabul’s increasing urbanization - meaning more paved surfaces that block rain and snow from seeping into the ground - and its booming population, which is drawing groundwater faster than it can be topped up.

“The Kabul population has doubled since 2001, while the groundwater recharge remains constant and may have even decreased,” Sadid noted.

As a result, groundwater levels are falling at an “alarming rate”, which could push people to start tapping unsafe water sources, he added.

That would pose risks to health and livelihoods almost as serious as war and air pollution, Sadid warned.

And if wells are dug into deep aquifers, it would deplete and potentially contaminate those aquifers, which are seen as vital emergency supplies in case of surface-water contamination, he noted.


According to the AREU report, Kabul’s urban area is expanding at a rate of almost 14% a year, making it one of the world’s fastest-growing cities.

Swelled mainly by people fleeing war and poverty, the city’s mushrooming population is putting a massive strain on groundwater supplies, Sadid said.

As most families in the city get their water from boreholes, a falling groundwater table means many households will soon be unable to dig deep enough, forcing them to pay for clean water, he added.

Figures from the state water authority show that only about 16% of Kabul households are connected to the mains water network.

The search for water could push poorer families out of the city into rural areas where there is more available groundwater, Sadid said, adding that extraction of water by private companies could cause wells in the city to dry even faster.

As finding clean water gets harder, lack of access could become “a serious source of conflicts among people”, Sadid said.

The trench-digging project may be one solution, but the government also needs to invest more in water conservation and find ways to tackle water wastage and over-use, he added.

Back at one of the project sites, Gul Mohammad and the other laborers said they were happy to take the work, as they had no other job prospects for now.

“The pay is not very much, and the work of digging trenches is difficult,” said Mohammad, walking down the hill at the end of his shift, carrying his mattock on his shoulder.

“But at least we do not go back home empty-handed.”

Top US diplomat finds virtual path into Venezuela amid rift (AP)

A year after shutting down the U.S. Embassy in Caracas, Washington’s top diplomat in Venezuela has found a way to slip back inside the South American nation — at least virtually.

Each Thursday afternoon, James Story hits the “Go Live” button on Facebook from his office in the U.S. Embassy in Bogota or his home in the Colombian capital hundreds of miles from Caracas. In a freewheeling approach, he answers questions in fluent Spanish from Venezuelans and the few U.S. citizens still in the country, addressing the latest intrigue and turmoil bubbling over in Venezuela and the United States. He occasionally breaks into English with a South Carolina accent.

For 30 minutes, Story talks about everything from Venezuela's purchases of gasoline from Iran, despite its vast oil reserves, to recent unrest in the U.S. over George Floyd’s death in police custody to accusations that President Nicolás Maduro is undermining Venezuela’s constitution.

“Look, this is not a true democracy,” Story said in a recent session, later railing against high-ranking Venezuelan officials whose families live lavishly in Spain and Panama while most Venezuelans are in poverty. “Yes, they’re cheating all of you.”

Story’s low-budget, weekly question-and-answer session on the popular social media platform is an unusual approach to outreach for explaining U.S. policy on Venezuela, which has so far failed to oust Maduro.

The cyber-diplomacy is a way for Story to get his message out since he's deprived of traditional tools such as visiting hospitals and schools, talking to local reporters and hosting cocktail parties for power brokers.

Story’s live chat sessions are part of duties that include leading a team of diplomats for the highly unusual “ virtual embassy ” working out of the mission in neighboring Colombia.

William Brownfield, who waged his own battles as a U.S. ambassador against the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, said using the video chat to bridge the divide between Venezuela and Colombia is an “exceptionally clever” solution.

“If there’s one thing the regime of Nicolás Maduro has been trying to do, it’s cut off any direct communication with his base by the U.S. government, or anybody who doesn’t agree with him,” Brownfield said in an interview from Washington.

Brownfield, who is now retired, served as ambassador to Venezuela for three years starting in 2004. His signature approach to diplomacy — admitting he had the advantage of working inside its borders — was handing out baseball bats and gloves to youth teams in Caracas’ poorest neighborhood.

Brownfield said it helped put a human face on U.S. officials. “It was fun to push back on the Chavista message that we were nothing but evil,” Brownfield said.

While Story’s tactic lacks the same direct human touch, Brownfield said it has the advantage of being online, offering access to 5 million people who make up Venezuela’s diaspora. Story can also communicate his message to other foreign diplomats, many cautious about what they can say while still inside Venezuela, he said.

“He’s saying things out loud that they cannot say,” Brownfield said.

Story and his team of fellow diplomats lowered the flag at the U.S. Embassy in March 2019, just a couple months after President Donald Trump recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate leader. The U.S. is among more than 50 nations that accuse Maduro of clinging to power following an undemocratic election in 2018 that banned the most popular opposition politicians.

The U.S. has since heavily sanctioned Maduro, his inner circle and the state-run oil firm, attempting to isolate them. The Trump administration recently offered a $15 million bounty for Maduro’s arrest after a U.S. court indicted him as a narcoterrorist.

Story, whose career has taken him to Mexico, Brazil, Mozambique and Afghanistan, serves as the embassy’s charge d’affairs, a diplomat who heads a mission in the absence of the ambassador. The U.S. and Venezuela haven’t exchanged ambassadors in a decade.

Trump nominated Story in May to serve as the ambassador to Venezuela, days after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told his staff to start planning to reopen the embassy in Caracas as part of a “maximum pressure” campaign anticipating what they hope will be Maduro’s imminent departure.

Story, who declined to comment for this article, launched the Facebook Live chat in April, later adding a sign-language interpreter. Each week it draws a few hundred live viewers, while the archived videos continue to attract clicks, one garnering 315,000 views.

The majority of Story’s viewers post questions that scroll up the page as he talks. Some plead for help to obtain asylum or visas so they can reunite with relatives in the U.S. Others invite the U.S. to invade and put an end to Maduro’s rule. Few are critical of the U.S. role, despite Story often urging tough questions from those who disagree with him.

At least one of Story’s Facebook Live comments appears to have reached Maduro’s ears.

Following a failed attack in early May that landed two ex-U.S. special forces soldiers in a Venezuelan prison, Story said that the U.S. government had no role, rather backing a peaceful solution through dialogue. He noted that U.S. forces had tracked down al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, and if Washington wanted Maduro taken out by force, he would no longer be in power.

Maduro fired back an hour later in an interview aired on state TV, citing Story’s “dispatches” from Bogota. He said the U.S. diplomat’s role sending the “mercenaries” was undeniable.

“James Story is responsible for this failed armed raid,” Maduro said. “James Story has his feet, his hands and his whole body in this armed raid.”

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