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July 13


U.S. troop presence reduced ahead of 135-day target date

The U.S. has reduced its troop presence in Afghanistan to 8,600, fulfilling its obligation to meet this target date as agreed in a February deal with the Taliban. The deal requires the full withdrawal of U.S. forces by May 2021, dependent on the Taliban fulfilling their agreed commitments.

Reuters reports that a key provision of the Feb 29 agreement involved a U.S. commitment to reduce its military footprint in Afghanistan from about 13,000 to 8,600 by mid-July and to zero by May 2021. The 8,600 goal is likely to be reached in early June, according to officials cited in the report.

The haste is also attributed President Donald Trump’s impatience with the halting progress of the peace process and his eagerness to end almost two decades of U.S military involvement in the country.

The U.S. invaded Afghanistan in Oct 2001 to oust the Taliban, reported to be sheltering Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda figures linked to the 9/11 attacks in the United States. The conflict spanned the administrations of Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Trump.

The withdrawal creates political benefits for Trump if it ends the longest armed conflict in U.S. history, regardless of whether there is any sign of a solution to the conflict. Violence is reported to have increased since the agreement, and Kabul and the militants appear no closer to ending their dispute about a controversial prisoner swap. On Jun 12, the country’s interior ministry accused the Taliban of carrying out 222 attacks against security forces in the previous week.


July 14


Government downsizes traditional Bastille Day spectacle in Paris

On Bastille Day a military ceremony at the Place de la Concorde in Paris will replace the traditional parade of troops and tanks down the Champs-Elysees. The presidency says the ceremony and fly past will honor the medical personnel, military and others "mobilized against the virus." The event also honors resistance hero-then-president Charles de Gaulle, who died 50 years ago.

By early June, when the downsized substitute was announced, the coronavirus had killed more than 29,000 people in France.

The parade normally starts at the Arc de Triomphe and ends at Concorde, where King Louis XVI was beheaded in 1793 in the revolution that overthrew France’s monarchy.

"It will be a reinvented 14th of July adapted to the circumstances," according to Defence Minister Florence Parly. The Place de la Concorde gathering of some 4,500 people will include invitees from Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Luxembourg. The presidency said they were invited as thanks for having taken coronavirus patients into their hospitals in regions bordering France. Unless the crisis has passed, the event will not be open to the public.

De Gaulle rose from French soldier in World War I to exiled leader and, eventually, to the presidency. He served as president from 1959 to 1969.

#23534 Published: June 8, 2020

July 14


P5+1 nuclear deal with Iran turns five under threat

Iran and six big powers signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on the Iranian nuclear program in Vienna five years ago. The anniversary sees the United States, which exited the JCPOA in 2018, pressuring the remaining partners to extend a UN arms embargo on Iran that is part of the deal beyond its October expiry. Tehran vows to withdraw from the deal if the embargo is extended.

The European Union (EU) sees the nuclear deal as a key pillar of regional and world security and has struggled to keep the pact alive despite U.S. pressure. AP reports that EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell insistsed after talks with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yiin on Jun 9 that since the U.S. has pulled out of the pact, it can no longer use its former membership to try to impose a permanent arms embargo on the Islamic Republic.

The expiry of the embargo on Oct 18, five years after its adoption, was one of the main JCPOA selling points for Iran.

The U.S. exit and punishing U.S. economic sanctions on Iran prompted that country to retaliate by increasing its nuclear capabilities beyond the limits agreed in 2015. Reuters reports that Iran says its steps to reactivate uranium enrichment, a pathway to developing nuclear bombs, could be reversed if Washington rescinds its sanctions and returns to the deal.

The JCPOA six, known as the P5+1 are: China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council), plus Germany.

The first two years of the agreement included key steps by Iran to restrict its nuclear capabilities, including reducing its uranium stockpile by 98 per cent, removing the core of a nuclear reactor capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium, and removing all but a handful of uranium enrichment equipment. Despite Iran’s certified compliance with the agreement, U.S. President Donald Trump argued it was flawed to Iran’s advantage and exited the deal.

Iran has warned that it may withdraw entirely from the nuclear pact, as well as the 1970 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, if UN sanctions are re-imposed.


July 14


Emirates Mars environment probe to make history

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) Hope Mars satellite mission will launch from Tanegashima Space Center on a Mitsubishi Heavy Industries’ H-IIA two-stage rocket. Due to arrive in February 2021, the UAE’s 50th birthday year, Hope Mars is the first planetary mission attempted by any Arab country.

The UAE leads the mission in collaboration with the Universities of Colorado-Boulder, California-Berkley and Arizona State. The probe was built by the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre in Dubai.

The probe will orbit Mars, collecting data for two years, with an option for a further two years. The mission is designed to investigate: the differences between the current and ancient climate of Mars; the loss of hydrogen and oxygen from the Martian atmosphere; and the relationship between the lower and upper atmosphere. It will also be expected to provide a global picture of Martian atmospheric changes daily, seasonally and yearly.

Hope’s arrival at Mars in 2021 will highlight the UAE’s Jubilee Year, and the mission is aimed at demonstrating how far the country has come since its founding on Dec 2, 1971.


Mid July


China plans launch of Mars rover to detect signs of present and past life on the planet

China’s Mars rover will launch from Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island aboard a Long March 5 rocket. The primary goal of the mission is to detect current and previous signs of life on Mars. Instruments on the orbiter and solar powered rover will investigate the Red Planet’s atmosphere and landscape and its geological and magnetic characteristics.

It is scheduled to launch in the mid-July to mid-August period when Mars is close to Earth, at about 39 million miles (62.7 km). At this distance it takes about seven months to reach Mars and the spacecraft is expected to attain orbit in Feb 2021. The lander will use parachutes, retro rockets and airbags to achieve a soft touchdown. The descent takes seven minutes – also known as "seven minutes of terror."

The final landing site has yet to be selected. There are two possible sites. Chryse Planitia is close to the landing sites of Viking 1 and Pathfinder. The second covers Isidis Planitia and stretches to the western edge of the Elysium Mons region. These low-lying areas allow for maximum atmosphere to help slow the spacecraft and a relatively smooth landing surface.

China is planning a second Mars mission for 2028, which will attempt to collect Martian samples and return them to Earth.

This is one of four Mars missions this year, the others being mounted by the United States, United Arab Emirates and a joint European Union-Russian mission.

The United States prohibits cooperation with China’s space program.

#23391 Published: January 7, 2020