Charting end to Afghan war, Obama plans withdrawal of virtually all troops by end of 2016

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Charting an end to America’s longest war, President Barack Obama announced plans Tuesday for keeping nearly 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan after this year but then withdrawing virtually all by the close of 2016 and the conclusion of his presidency.

The drawdown would allow Obama to bring America’s military engagement in Afghanistan to an end while seeking to protect the gains made in a war in which he significantly intensified U.S. involvement.

"We have to recognize that Afghanistan will not be a perfect place, and it is not America’s responsibility to make it one," Obama declared during an appearance in the White House Rose Garden.

He credited American forces, which were first deployed by President George W. Bush within a month of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, with striking significant blows against al-Qaida’s leadership, eliminating Osama bin Laden and preventing Afghanistan from being used as a base for strikes against the U.S. He said: "Now we’re finishing the job we’ve started."

The drawdown blueprint is contingent on Afghanistan’s government signing a stalled bilateral security agreement. While current Afghan President Hamid Karzai has refused to sign the accord, U.S. officials say they’re confident that either of the candidates running to replace him will finalize the deal.


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Obama may soon OK train and equip mission for Syrian rebels

WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Barack Obama may soon sign off on a project to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels, in an open move that would significantly boost U.S. support to forces who have been asking for three years for military help in their quest to oust President Bashar Assad, administration officials said Tuesday.

The step would send a limited number of American troops to Jordan to be part of a regional training mission that would instruct carefully vetted members of the Free Syrian Army on tactics, including counterterrorism operations, the officials said. They said Obama has not yet given approval for the initiative, and that there is still internal discussion about its merits and potential risks.

In a foreign policy speech on Wednesday to the U.S. Military Academy, Obama is expected to frame Syria as a counterterrorism challenge and indicate that he will expand assistance to the opposition, according to the officials. However, he is not likely to announce the specific program, which is still being finalized, the officials said.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss administration deliberations.

The State Department, Pentagon, intelligence community, along with many in Congress who back the move, have concluded that Assad will not budge without a change in the military situation on the ground, according to the officials. At the same time, there are growing fears about the threat posed by al-Qaida-linked and inspired extremists fighting in Syria, the officials said.

Fighting in eastern Ukraine intensifies after decisive presidential election

DONETSK, Ukraine (AP) -- Dozens of dead insurgents lay piled in a van outside a morgue Tuesday, and a rebel said more were on the way. Bomb disposal experts disarmed a mortar round lodged in a corpse. A wrecked and blood-soaked truck at the Donetsk airport showed the grisly aftermath of battle.

The fight for eastern Ukraine seems to have taken a ferocious turn, as both sides step up their attacks after the rebellious regions mostly boycotted a presidential election that delivered a decisive winner.

Following a day and night of the heaviest and most sustained assault by Ukrainian government forces to date, the pro-Russia separatist movement finds itself facing an emboldened and resolute national leadership.

With Sunday’s election of billionaire Petro Poroshenko to the presidency, Kiev has received grudging and tentatively positive diplomatic overtures from Russia.

But with evidence that irregulars are continuing to pour into Ukraine from Russia, it remains unclear whether the Kremlin is encouraging fighters whose attack Monday on the Donetsk International Airport showed their increasing aggression.

Malaysia releases satellite data on missing jet, but experts doubt it will solve mystery

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) -- Close to three months after the Malaysian jetliner disappeared, the government on Tuesday released reams of raw satellite data it used to determine that the flight ended in the southern Indian Ocean, a step long demanded by the families of some of the passengers on board.

But while the 45 pages of information may help satisfy a desire for more transparency in a much criticized investigation, experts say it’s unlikely to solve the mystery of Flight 370 -- or give much comfort to relatives stuck between grieving and the faintest hope, no matter how unlikely, their loved ones might still be alive.

"It’s a whole lot of stuff that is not very important to know," said Michael Exner, a satellite engineer who has been independently researching the calculations. "There are probably two or three pages of important stuff, the rest is just noise. It doesn’t add any value to our understanding."

He and others said the needed assumptions, algorithms and metadata to validate the investigators’ conclusion were not there.

The release of the information came as the underwater hunt for the jet is poised to pause until later in the summer while new, powerful sonar equipment is obtained, a sign of just how difficult it will be to locate the jet and finally get some answers on how it went missing with 239 people on board.

High-pollution power plant that said it was victim in Obama’s ‘war on coal’ survives, thrives

HOMER CITY, Pa. (AP) -- Three years ago, the operators of one of the nation’s dirtiest coal-fired power plants warned of "immediate and devastating" consequences from the Obama administration’s push to clean up pollution from coal.

Faced with cutting sulfur dioxide pollution blowing into downwind states by 80 percent in less than a year, lawyers for EME Homer City Generation L.P. sued the Environmental Protection Agency to block the rule, saying it would cause it grave harm and bring a painful spike in electricity bills.

None of those dire predictions came to pass.

Instead, the massive western Pennsylvania power plant is expected in a few years to turn from one of the worst polluters in the country to a model for how coal-fired power plants can slash pollution.

The story of the Homer City plant reflects the precarious position of older coal-fired plants these days, squeezed between cheap and plentiful natural gas and a string of environmental rules the Obama administration has targeted at coal, which supplies about 40 percent of the nation’s electricity. The latest regulation, the first proposal to curb earth-warming carbon dioxide from power plants, is due next week. It will pose yet another challenge to coal-fired power plants. Dozens of coal-fueled units have already announced they would close in the face of new rules.

Egypt extends presidential election extra day, trying to boost turnout sought by front-runner

CAIRO (AP) -- "Where are the people?" one talk show host on a military station shouted as Egypt on Tuesday extended its presidential election to a third day in an apparent drive to raise voter turnout and avoid an embarrassingly meager show of support for former army chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.

Throughout the day, officials and supporters of el-Sissi, the expected winner, exhorted voters to go to the polls.

Scenes of empty polling stations drove el-Sissi supporters on the country’s TV stations into a lather, and they scolded Egyptians for not turning out.

Opponents said the turnout showed the depth of discontent with el-Sissi, not just among his Islamist foes but among a broader section of the public that says he has no solutions for the country’s woes and fears he will return Egypt to the autocratic ways of Hosni Mubarak, overthrown in 2011 after 29 years in power.

There has never been any doubt that the 59-year-old el-Sissi would win over his sole opponent, leftist politician Hamdeen Sabahi.

Tricks some VA clinics used to hide wait times for veterans seeking health care

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Fake appointments, unofficial logs kept on the sly and appointments made without telling the patient are among tricks used to disguise delays in seeing and treating veterans at Veterans Affairs hospitals and clinics.

They’re not a new phenomenon. VA officials, veteran service organizations and members of Congress have known about them for years.

The "gaming strategies" were used to make it appear veterans were getting appointments within target times set by the department, according to a 2010 department memo to VA facility managers aimed at fighting the practices.

The memo from William Schoenhard, then the VA’s deputy undersecretary for health operations and management, said that when a medical appointment wasn’t available within the 30-day target time then used by VA, some schedulers would:

-- Make a fake appointment within the 30-day period but not tell the patient. The appointment would be canceled later and a new appointment would be made to meet a new 30-day target.