It was a harrowing international debut for Chuck Hagel, whose first trip to Afghanistan as U.S. defense secretary went dramatically off-script and challenged the American narrative about the 11-year-old war.
His first full day in Afghanistan began with the sound of suicide bomb attack about a kilometer away from his morning meetings at a NATO facility. But the real damage came the next day when Washington’s mercurial ally in the war, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, accused the United States of colluding with the Taliban hours before the two met.
Put in an awkward position, Hagel appeared cautious and at pains to avoid sharply criticizing the Afghan leader, even as he firmly disputed Karzai’s assertions. Having weathered a brutal confirmation battle last month, the former two-term Republican senator at one point even appeared to commiserate with Karzai.
“I was once a politician,” Hagel, 66, told reporters traveling with him. “So I can understand the kind of pressures - especially leaders of countries - are always under.”
NATO officials are strongly considering a proposal to keep Afghan forces at their peak strength of 352,000 until at least 2018, as opposed to current plans to cut the force by a third after 2015, alliance officials said on Thursday.
Backers say the proposal, disclosed to a small group of reporters during NATO talks in Brussels, would send a crucial signal of enduring support for Afghanistan and bolster Afghan confidence after the United States and its allies declare their long, unpopular war in the country over at the end of 2014.
But it could also cost allies billions of dollars more at a time when budget pressures are already squeezing defense spending and forcing Western nations to make tough choices about military priorities.
Pakistan plans to build a $30 million amusement park and outdoor activity center on the edge of the northwestern town of Abbottabad, where U.S. special forces killed Osama bin Laden, an official said on Monday.
The private venture in the foothills of the Himalayas will include a zoo, water sports, a mini-golf course, rock climbing and paragliding, said Jamaluddin Khan, the deputy provincial minister for tourism.
“The project will take five years to complete,” he told Reuters.
U.S. Navy SEALs killed the al Qaeda leader in 2011 in a secret raid that humiliated Pakistan’s military - which has an academy nearby - and heavily strained ties between strategic allies Washington and Islamabad.
Iran said on Monday it had launched a live monkey into space, seeking to show off missile systems that have alarmed the West because the technology could potentially be used to deliver a nuclear warhead.
The Defense Ministry announced the launch as world powers sought to agree a date and venue with Iran for resuming talks to resolve a standoff with the West over Tehran’s contested nuclear program before it degenerates into a new Middle East war.
Efforts to nail down a new meeting have failed repeatedly and the powers fear Iran is exploiting the diplomatic vacuum to hone the means to produce nuclear weapons.
The Islamic Republic denies seeking weapons capability and says it seeks only electricity from its uranium enrichment so it can export more of its considerable oil wealth.
More than 100 people were shot, stabbed or possibly burned to death by government forces in the Syrian city of Homs, a monitoring group said on Thursday, and fierce fighting raged across the country.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said women and children were among the 106 people killed by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad forces who stormed Basatin al-Hasawiya, a poor district on the edge of Homs, on Tuesday.
The massacre in the central city came the same day twin explosions killed over 80 people at Aleppo’s university in the north, according to the group.
Reuters cannot independently confirm reports due to reporting restrictions in Syria.
Two explosions tore through one of Syria’s biggest universities on the first day of student exams on Tuesday, killing at least 52 people and wounding dozens, a monitoring group said.
Bloodshed has disrupted civilian life across Syria since a violent government crackdown in early 2011 on peaceful demonstrations for democratic reform turned the unrest into an armed insurgency bent on overthrowing President Bashar al-Assad.
More than 50 countries asked the United Nations Security Council on Tuesday to refer the crisis to the International Criminal Court, which prosecutes people for genocide and war crimes. But Russia - Assad’s long-standing ally and arms supplier - blocked the initiative, calling it “ill-timed and counterproductive.
More than 60,000 people have died in the Syrian uprising and civil war, the United Nations said on Wednesday, dramatically raising the death toll in a struggle that shows no sign of ending.
Dozens were killed in a Damascus suburb when a government air strike turned a petrol station into an inferno, incinerating drivers who had rushed there for a rare chance to fill their tanks, activists said.
“I counted at least 30 bodies. They were either burnt or dismembered,” said Abu Saeed, an activist who arrived at the area an hour after the raid occurred at 1:00 PM (1100 GMT) in Muleiha, a suburb on the eastern edge of the capital.
U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay said in Geneva that researchers cross-referencing seven sources over five months of analysis had listed 59,648 people killed in Syria between March 15, 2011 and November 30, 2012.
“The number of casualties is much higher than we expected and is truly shocking,” she said. “Given that there has been no let-up in the conflict since the end of November, we can assume that more than 60,000 people have been killed by the beginning of 2013.”
Reuters TV: Inside the Free Syrian Army’s homemade rocket making machine
Syrian rebels have been using homemade rockets to make advances against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces. Assad’s forces also suffered a demoralizing setback when the head of its military police defected.
An Afghan woman wearing a police uniform shot dead on Monday a civilian contractor working for Western forces in the police chief’s compound in Kabul, NATO said.
The incident is likely to raise troubling questions about the direction of an unpopular war.
It appeared to be the first time that a woman member of Afghanistan’s security forces carried out such an attack.
There were conflicting reports about the victim.