TIME

Obama: ‘We Tortured Some Folks’

US President Barack Obama makes a statement while at the White House in Washington
President Barack Obama makes a statement while at the White House in Washington on Aug. 1, 2014. Larry Downing—Reuters

On Friday, the President offered his frankest admission of post-9/11 interrogation tactics, condemned Hamas for breaking the cease-fire and criticized House Republicans

On Friday, President Barack Obama previewed the upcoming release of a Senate report into the CIA’s rendition, detention and interrogation after the attacks of September 11, 2001, saying “we tortured some folks.”

Speaking to reporters from the White House, he said, “Even before I came into office, I was very clear that in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 we did some things that were wrong,” Obama said. “We crossed a line and that needs to be understood and accepted. We have to as a country take responsibility for that.”

At the briefing, Obama also condemned Hamas for breaching a cease-fire with Israel minutes after it went into effect Friday morning, saying the breach makes it more difficult to end the weeks-long conflict in Gaza. he said Hamas must immediately release captured Israeli solider Hadar Goldin, who was taken on the Israel-Gaza border in a Friday morning attack that killed two other Israeli soldiers. “If they are serious about resolving this situation, that soldier needs to be released unconditionally as soon as possible,” Obama said. He added that with the trust broken, “I think it’s going to be very hard to put a cease-fire back together again.”

“The Israelis are entirely right that these tunnel networks need to be dismantled,” Obama said, adding that Israelis should be pursuing ways to do so with fewer civilian casualties.

The president also defended CIA Director John Brennan, who has been caught up in controversy amid revelations that CIA staffers improperly accessed the files of the Senate investigators. “I have full confidence in John Brennan,” Obama said.

Obama also heaped praise on Secretary of State John Kerry for his efforts in negotiating the cease-fire, saying he had been the subject of “unfair criticism” in recent weeks. He also said Israel must do more to reduce civilian casualties in Gaza. “It’s hard to reconcile Israel’s need to defend itself with our concern for civilians in Gaza,” he said.

Obama also defended his handling of the ongoing crisis in eastern Ukraine, saying the United States has done everything to support the Ukrainian government. “Short of going to war, there are going to be some constraints in terms of what we can do,” he said. Obama said that Russian President Vladimir Putin should want to resolve the situation diplomatically, “but sometimes people don’t always act rationally.”

Before taking questions from reporters, Obama highlighted Friday’s jobs report showing the sixth-consecutive month of 200,000+ job growth and blasted congressional inaction on ambassadorial appointments and dealing with the crisis of unaccompanied minors crossing the southwest border.

“House Republicans as we speak are trying to pass the most extreme and unworkable versions of a bill that they know is going nowhere,” Obama said.

Obama said he would act to shift money around to pay for the care of the unaccompanied minors in U.S. custody because Congress left him no other option.

Michael Steel, a spokesman for Speaker of the House John Boehner said Obama has been AWOL on the border crisis. ““When it comes to the humanitarian crisis on our southern border, President Obama has been completely AWOL – in fact, he has made matter worse by flip-flopping on the 2008 law that fueled the crisis. Senate Democrats have left town without acting on his request for a border supplemental. Right now, House Republicans are the only ones still working to address this crisis.”

–with reporting by Justin Worland

TIME Gaza

Netanyahu: Gaza Fight Will Continue Until Tunnels Are Destroyed

IDF soldiers of the Paratroopers Brigade guarding and neutralizing tunnels that were dug by the Hamas organization and leading into Israel, Khan Younis, Gaza, July 30, 2014.
IDF soldiers of the Paratroopers Brigade guarding and neutralizing tunnels that were dug by the Hamas organization and leading into Israel, Khan Younis, Gaza, July 30, 2014. Ziv Koren—Polaris

"We are determined to complete this mission, with or without a ceasefire"


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged Thursday to continue his country’s offensive against Palestinian militants in Gaza until tunnels facilitating attacks on Israel were destroyed, defying peace efforts and potentially extending the three-week war for at least several more days, if not longer.

“We are determined to complete this mission, with or without a cease-fire,” Netanyahu said in televised remarks ahead of a government meeting in Tel Aviv on Thursday, according to Reuters. “I won’t agree to any proposal that will not enable the Israeli military to finish this important task, for the sake of Israel’s security.”

The Israeli military also called up 16,000 more reservists, a move that an unnamed military official told Reuters was done to relieve some of the tens of thousands of other reservists already called up.

At least 1,372 Palestinians, most of them civilians, in Gaza—and 56 Israeli soldiers and three civilians—have been killed since Israel launched “Operation Protective Edge” on July 8 in response to rocket fire from Gaza. Netanyahu’s security cabinet approved continuing operations to destroy the network of tunnels in Gaza on Wednesday amid international efforts to reach a cease-fire.

[Reuters]

 

 

TIME Israel

Cease-Fire Ends in Gaza

APTOPIX Mideast Israel Palestinians
A Palestinian woman carries her belongings past the rubble of houses destroyed by Israeli strikes in Beit Hanoun, northern Gaza Strip, July 26, 2014. Lefteris Pitarakis—AP

Israel reports rocket fire from Gaza

Updated 3:11 p.m. ET

The Israeli military reported rocket fire from Gaza Saturday after militant Islamic group Hamas rejected Israel’s proposed extension of a truce by four hours.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri rejected an offer announced by Israeli Cabinet member Yuval Steinitz to extend the 12-hour truce by four hours, the Associated Press reports.

The end of cease-fire comes on the same day as the death toll in Gaza hit 1,000 people, according to Gaza health official Asharf al-Kidra.

Western officials including U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon are currently meeting in Paris in an attempt to create a deal that could provide a longterm truce.

[AP]

TIME Israel-Gaza conflict

As Israel Fights Hamas in Gaza, Egypt Plays the Peacemaker Once Again

APTOPIX Mideast Israel Palestinians
Smoke from an Israeli strike rises over Gaza City on July 24, 2014. Adel Hana—AP

Egypt craves Western and Arab approval but fears strengthening Hamas

John Kerry, the beleaguered U.S. Secretary of State, arrived in Cairo Monday to try and broker another cease-fire agreement between Israel and Hamas, a Palestinian militant group which controls the Gaza Strip. But it’s not the U.S. that’s most likely to get a deal done – it’s Egypt.

Egypt has often played the role of negotiator when conflicts between Israel and Hamas have bubbled up in the past. Former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak brokered a cease-fire between them in 2009. After Mubarak was given the boot in 2011, it was left to Mohamed Morsi to negotiate the next truce.

Cairo, though, has a rough road ahead. Israel and Hamas aren’t likely to seek a cease-fire just yet, as both are claiming successes in their latest bout of violence. Israel says it’s destroying Hamas’ tunnel network. Hamas, meanwhile managed to scare several international airlines away from flying to Israel for a few days for fear of rocket attacks. It also claimed to have captured an Israeli soldier.

Egypt’s position as peacemaker dates back to 1979, when then-president Anwar Sadat, exhausted by Egypt’s 30 years of war with Israel, signed a peace agreement between the two countries. It was a deeply controversial decision — Israel is not, and was not, considered a traditional ally by other Arab countries. Sadat was assassinated two years later.

“In the intervening 35 years [since 1979], Egypt has always played an important role, both because of its geography and the peace treaty,” says Robert Danin, Senior Fellow at the Council for Foreign Relations. “It is the largest Arab country and still has a leadership role.”

Yet for Egypt’s current president, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, who took control after playing a key role in ousting the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood’s Morsi, the peace treaty and its accompanying accord agreeing to Palestinian autonomy no longer carry much weight.

“The view in the west is Egypt has traditionally played [the role of peacemaker] and this is a role they should play now,” says Eric Trager, Wagner Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “But Sisi is in an existential conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and Hamas is the Palestinian equivalent. Egypt views Hamas as the same as the enemy they’re fighting at home … It’s not going to offer cease-fire terms that are at all favorable to Hamas.”

International diplomacy isn’t exactly at the top of Sisi’s agenda, either. Facing upheavals in Egypt’s Western Desert and the Sinai, plus the ever-present threat of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s president has his own domestic conflicts to sort out.

It’s easy to assume that a prolonged war between Israel and Hamas would benefit Egypt, who wants to see Hamas weakened. But Danin thinks otherwise, as Egypt’s Arab partners put pressure on it to act.

‘”At a certain point [conflict] isn’t [beneficial],” says Danin. “When things get out of hand, the perception in the Arab world is that Israel is slaughtering Palestinians … it puts Egypt in a difficult position.”

Egypt’s acting as a negotiator not only appeases the Arab world — its financial backers in the Gulf States particularly — but the U.S. as well.

“Sisi needs to establish his credibility in the West,” says Dr. Claire Spencer, Head of the Middle East and North Africa Program at Chatham House. Brokering a cease-fire presents “Egypt as a power to be reckoned with,” she adds.

If Egypt can help put an end to Israel’s current invasion in Gaza, it will be lauded as a peacemaker and a key player in international diplomacy. Yet Sisi may have darker motives for getting involved with negotiations. Cairo’s current record on rule of law, democracy and human rights is dubious, to say the least. The recent sentencing of three Al-Jazeera journalists to seven years in jail is only one example of this. “When people are focusing on Israel this is good,” says Danin. “It means people aren’t focusing on Egypt.”

Sisi, then, is torn. Arranging a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas will paint him as a hero to the West and the Arab world, both sick of the bloodshed in Gaza. Yet any cease-fire that benefits Hamas will cost him support amongst his party and strengthen an enemy. Caught in this deadlock, a truce looks unlikely. Whatever Sisi suggests, Hamas is almost sure to refuse.

TIME Israel

Michael Bloomberg Blasts FAA for Halting Israel Flights

Bloomberg Flies El Al, Says Travel To Israel "Safe"
Mike Bloomberg, majority shareholder of Bloomberg LP and former New York mayor, second right, and Nir Barkat, mayor of Jerusalem, right, speak with member of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) in Jerusalem, Israel, on Wednesday, July 23, 2014. Gilad Mor—Bloomberg/ Getty Images

"It was an overreaction for the FAA to halt U.S. flights here – and a mistake they should correct"

Former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg said the Federal Aviation Administration overreacted after it canceled flights to Israel for 24 hours. Bloomberg flew to the country himself Wednesday, to “show solidarity with the Israeli people” and to “show that it’s safe to fly in and out” of the country, despite the ongoing crisis in Gaza.

“Halting flights here – when the airport is safe – hurts Israel and rewards Hamas for attacking Israel. Hamas wants to shut down the airport; we can’t let that happen,” Bloomberg said in a statement posted to his website. “I’m a pilot – and I’ve always believed the FAA does a great job – and still do. But on this issue, I think the agency got it wrong.”

The FAA ordered American carriers to stay put on Wednesday, after a rocket hit a mile away from Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport. Flight operations were canceled “due to the potentially hazardous situation created by the armed conflict in Israel and Gaza,” the FAA said.

Bloomberg, who says he has “always been a strong supporter of Israel,” landed in Tel Aviv at 5 a.m. local time on Wednesday via an El Al flight. He applauded Secretary of State John Kerry for also flying into the region on Wednesday to meet with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

“He was right to fly in, and I hope he will report back that the airport is safe and that the FAA should reverse its decision,” Bloomberg said.

TIME Palestine

Israel Hits More Than 70 Targets in Gaza, as Ban and Kerry Call for Truce

The U.N. Secretary General and the U.S. Secretary of State lament renewed carnage and call for a cease-fire

+ READ ARTICLE

Israeli warplanes struck more than 70 targets in the Gaza Strip in the early hours of Tuesday morning, including a stadium, five mosques and the home of a late Hamas military chief, reports the Associated Press.

The attacks came as U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry accelerated diplomatic efforts for an immediate cease-fire.

The Israel Defense Forces through its Twitter account on Tuesday said that it had killed 183 “terrorists” and struck at more than 1,300 “terror sites” in Gaza during the two-week-old Operation Protective Edge. However, according to Human Rights Watch, many of the attacks have been made on civilian structures, including a refugee camp and hundreds of homes, leading to thousands of displacements.

Some 584 Palestinians and 29 Israelis have been killed during the conflict. The U.N. estimates that 75% of Palestinian deaths are of civilians, with scores of women and children among them.

“We must find a way to stop the violence,” said Ban at a joint press conference in the Egyptian capital, Cairo, with Kerry. “So many people have died. As [Secretary Kerry] just said, it’s mostly [the] civilian population, women and children. It’s very sad, it’s tragic.”

Kerry called on Hamas to accept a cease-fire framework tabled by Egyptian authorities earlier this month.

“Israel has accepted that cease-fire proposal,” said Kerry, who landed in Egypt on Monday after being dispatched to the region by President Barack Obama on Sunday night. “So only Hamas now needs to make the decision to spare innocent civilians from this violence.”

Despite the heavy loss of Palestinian lives in the fighting, Kerry described Israel’s military operation in Gaza as “appropriate” and a “legitimate effort to defend itself.”

Meanwhile, Israeli authorities acknowledged to local media on Monday that they could not account for the whereabouts of one of their soldiers but that he may have been killed after an attack on an armored vehicle over the weekend.

The admission comes a day after Israel’s envoy to the U.N. dismissed claims made by Hamas on television Sunday that they had kidnapped an Israeli soldier.

TIME Foreign Policy

Inside John Kerry’s Diplomatic Save in Afghanistan

Presidential candidates Abdullah Abdullah, right, and Ashraf Ghani embrace at a news conference with Secretary of State John Kerry where a deal to audit ballots was announced, in Kabul, Afghanistan on July 12, 2014.
Presidential candidates Abdullah Abdullah, right, and Ashraf Ghani embrace at a news conference with Secretary of State John Kerry where a deal to audit ballots was announced, in Kabul, Afghanistan on July 12, 2014. Jim Bourg—The New York Times/Redux

Up to one million might have died, an Afghan leader warned.

As the sun went down over Kabul on Saturday July 13, Afghanistan’s future hung in the balance. Accusations of fraud in the country’s recent presidential election had paralyzed the country’s politics and threatened to trigger a civil war that could destroy the progress America’s costly military and diplomatic efforts had delivered since 2001. The parties in the dispute had convened at the residence of the American ambassador in Kabul, but the two sides couldn’t reach agreement.

Secretary of State John Kerry arrived on the scene that Saturday evening just as key Afghan players were headed out to the patio for their evening prayers. Scheduled to depart 90 minutes earlier for Vienna, where he was to join the ongoing international negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, Kerry had delayed his departure to make a last ditch effort to broker a deal.

It was a dangerous moment, and not just for the Afghans. Without an agreement between second place finisher Abdullah Abdullah and the election’s declared winner, Ashraf Ghani, Afghanistan was at risk of an implosion like the one that enabled the Taliban to take power in 1996—creating a safe haven for Osama bin Laden to plot the 9/11 attacks. And Kerry’s visit defied the advice of other Obama officials who warned any diplomatic intervention on the U.S. part held “the risk of complete failure,” in the words of a senior official.

The details of how Kerry defused the stalemate, based on accounts from a half-dozen officials familiar with the talks, reveals an Afghanistan closer to the brink than many outsiders may appreciate. It also illuminates rare foreign policy win for Kerry and for an Obama administration staggered by months of setbacks, one whose importance has been overshadowed by turmoil in the Middle East and Ukraine. Finally, it shows how fragile the country remains as the U.S. prepares to withdraw the last of its combat troops later this year.

The crisis was the result of the inconclusive June 14 presidential vote to replace the longtime Afghan ruler Hamid Karzai. Abdullah, the losing candidate, was insisting the vote had been rigged to the tune of hundreds of thousands of fraudulent ballots. By mid-July, Abdullah’s supporters had threatened to create a kind of protest government. Rumors swirled of an armed rebellion, with the potential to ignite dormant ethnic and tribal rivalries. “We will accept death but not defeat,” Ghani’s running mate, the notorious ex-warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, had recently vowed. “It was pretty frightening. People were preparing for civil war,” says one official.

On July 8 President Obama called Abdullah directly, warning that American aid to country could be cut off if he didn’t stand down. The call bought time but didn’t resolve the core dispute. “The president’s role was to intervene at a point where it looked like the dispute was threatening the stability of Kabul and the country. But that didn’t necessarily mean there was enough pressure to come to an agreement,” says one senior administration official. “Both candidates remained pretty dug in to their positions,” says another.

Kerry had arrived late on the night of July 10 from Beijing, diverting from his planned itinerary to Geneva for the Iran talks. Over the next three days, through long meetings, first with Abdullah’s camp, and then with Ghani’s, Kerry’s team hammered out a plan.

Afghanistan’s election commission, under international supervision, would audit every one of the eight million ballots cast in the June 14 vote (a runoff after an initial April 5 election.) The plan also called for a power-sharing arrangement that would give Abdullah an important role in the new Afghan government, potentially as a kind of deputy national leader. (The details have yet to be finalized and officials called reports of a European-style parliamentary system premature.)

A key asset in establishing the framework for the deal, officials say, was the relationship Kerry had built with the major players—Abdullah, Ghani, and also Karzai—over many years, dating to his tenure as Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman. When Abdullah contested a fraud-rife 2009 election that returned Karzai to power, Kerry rushed to the country for long meetings with both men after a distrustful Karzai refused to talk to the U.S. special envoy to the country, Richard Holbrooke. Karzai is even less inclined to trust Washington today, and rarely speaks with President Obama. But the Afghan leader does maintain a good rapport with Kerry.

“Obviously a lot of the machinery of this took place from the White House and by phone. But ultimately a large part of why this got sealed is that Kerry had built up a relationship with Ghani, Abdullah and Karzai going all the way back to 2009,” says Jonah Blank, an Afghanistan expert with the RAND Corporation

Though the framework of the deal had been hammered out over the previous two days, the decisive moment came that Saturday evening, at the residence of U.S. Ambassador James B. Cunningham, after Abdullah and his retinue had finished prayers and broken their Ramadan fast. Ghani and his allies were elsewhere on the heavily fortified U.S. embassy compound; the two contenders for Afghanistan’s presidency had not yet met face-to-face.

Kerry had been buoyed by an earlier meeting with Karzai, who agreed to delay the country’s scheduled August 3 presidential inauguration, which a time-consuming audit of every ballot would require. But when Kerry arrived at Cunningham’s residence, Abdullah still wasn’t sold on a deal. Could he really trust an election process run by the government of Ghani’s ally Karzai?

Kerry pleaded with Abdullah to accept the deal. “I’m asking you as a friend to trust me,” he said. Kerry walked the group through several chapters in his life story, from the Vietnam War to the 2004 presidential campaign, and concluded by calling the meeting among the most important he’d ever attended. He urged Abdullah and his allies to consider the millions of Afghans who had voted despite Taliban threats—the Americans who had done so much for Afghanistan. “U.S. soldiers didn’t come here to fight and die to see this election fail,” Kerry said.

“You could tell that shifted the dynamic,” says an official who was present. Shortly after 9pm, Abdullah agreed to the deal.

Within half an hour, Ghani had arrived to clinch the agreement with his rival in person. The discourse between the Abdullah and Ghani camps had not been civil of late—at one rally, Abdullah’s running mate had called Ghani a name that roughly translates as “dried-up intestine.” But the men greeted each other warmly. If they felt personal hostility, says one official, “they did a good job of hiding it.”

As they headed to a midnight press conference, officials present say the men seemed to take pride in an agreement that had spared their country the threat of a nightmarish descent into chaos.

On July 16, President Obama opened his press conference announcing new economic sanctions against Russia by congratulating his Secretary of State for brokering the Afghan deal. Obama said it had preserved “the first democratic transfer of power in the history of that nation.”

In a conversation the day after Kerry’s departure, Ghani shared his relief over the outcome. The agreement, he said, may have saved one million Afghan lives.

TIME Nuclear Talks

Kerry, Top Iranian Diplomat to Hold In-Depth Talks Over Nuclear Negotiations

From left: Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif meets with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry during talks between the foreign ministers of the six powers negotiating with Tehran on its nuclear program, in Vienna, on July 13, 2014.
From left: Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif meets with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry during talks between the foreign ministers of the six powers negotiating with Tehran on its nuclear program, in Vienna, on July 13, 2014. Jim Bourg—AFP/Getty Images

Secretary of State John Kerry will hold in-depth discussions Monday with Iran's top diplomat in a bid to advance faltering nuclear negotiations.

(VIENNA) — Secretary of State John Kerry will hold in-depth discussions Monday with Iran’s top diplomat in a bid to advance faltering nuclear negotiations, with a deadline just days away for a comprehensive agreement.

The scheduled talks come a day after Kerry and the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany failed to reach a breakthrough on uranium enrichment and other issues standing in the way of a deal that would curb Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for the end of nuclear-related sanctions on Tehran.

The top officials took turns meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif, and each gave an assessment describing significant gaps between the two sides. Russia and China sent lower-level officials to Austria’s capital for this week’s gathering.

Six months ago, the six world powers and Tehran gave themselves until July 20 to conclude what is supposed to be a multi-decade agreement that sets clear limits on Iranian activity and locks in place an international monitoring regime designed to ensure that the Islamic republic cannot develop nuclear weapons.

But the interim agreement also provides the option of an additional six-month window for hammering out a full accord, though officials have suggested a shorter extension may be agreed upon.

Kerry’s second day of talks will continue his efforts to gauge “Iran’s willingness to make the critical choices it needs to make,” according to a senior State Department official.

The official didn’t say how long Kerry’s discussions with Zarif would run, but indicated a “potentially lengthy conversation” lay ahead. The official wasn’t authorized to be quoted by name and demanded anonymity.

On Sunday, British Foreign Minister William Hague said no breakthrough had been reached. But Kerry said he was not giving up.

“We’re working, we’re working, we just got here,” said Kerry, chiding reporters asking about progress as the day’s meetings wound down.

Zarif said no problems had been resolved “but I think we have made some important headway.”

Iran says it needs to expand enrichment to make reactor fuel and insists it does not want atomic arms. But the U.S. and others fear Tehran could steer the activity toward manufacturing the core of nuclear missiles. Washington is leading the charge for deep Iranian enrichment cuts.

Germany’s Frank-Walter Steinmeier and France’s Laurent Fabius left Sunday, a few hours after they arrived. But Hague joined Kerry in staying on for another day.

The show of Western unity notwithstanding, Kerry’s presence was most important. With the most significant disputes between Washington and Tehran, his visit gave him a chance to discuss them directly with Zarif.

Both face difficult internal pressures.

Iranian hardliners oppose almost any concession by moderate President Hassan Rouhani’s government. In the U.S., Republicans and Democrats have threatened to scuttle any emerging agreement because it would allow Iran to maintain some enrichment capacity.

Outside the negotiations, regional rivals of Iran, including Israel and Saudi Arabia, are extremely skeptical of any arrangement they feel would allow the Islamic republic to escape international pressure while moving closer to the nuclear club.

Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi suggested any extension would be relatively short, saying “there is not much willingness” by either side to go a full six months. He, too, spoke Sunday of “huge and deep differences.”

TIME Foreign Policy

Kerry Arrives in Afghanistan to Meet Candidates

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks at the press conference of the 6th China-U.S. Security and Economic Dialogue and 5th round of China-U.S. High Level Consultation on People-to-People Exchange at Diaoyutai State Guest House on July 10, 2014 in Beijing, China.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks at the press conference of the 6th China-U.S. Security and Economic Dialogue and 5th round of China-U.S. High Level Consultation on People-to-People Exchange at Diaoyutai State Guest House on July 10, 2014 in Beijing, China. Feng Li—Getty Images

With Iraq wracked by insurgency, Afghanistan's power dispute over the election results is posing a new challenge to President Barack Obama's 5 1/2-year effort to leave behind two secure nations while ending America's long wars in the Muslim world.

Updated: July 11, 2014, 01:40 a.m. ET

(KABUL, Afghanistan) — Secretary of State John Kerry is making a quick stop in Afghanistan to help resolve an election crisis sowing chaos in a country that the U.S. has spent hundreds of billions of dollars and lost more than 2,000 lives trying to stabilize.

The visit comes as Afghanistan shows worrying signs of unravelling in its first democratic transfer of power from President Hamid Karzai, who followed a decade of Taliban governance. Kerry will meet Friday with the two candidates claiming victory in last month’s presidential election runoff.

The U.S. and its allies are growing increasingly concerned as Afghanistan shows signs of unraveling in its first democratic transfer of power from President Hamid Karzai. With Iraq wracked by insurgency, Afghanistan’s dispute over election results poses a new challenge to President Barack Obama’s effort to leave behind two secure states while ending America’s long wars.

“I’ve been in touch with both candidates several times as well as President (Hamid) Karzai,” Kerry said before leaving Beijing, where he attended a U.S.-China economic meeting. He called on them to “show critical statesmanship and leadership at a time when Afghanistan obviously needs it.”

“This is a critical moment for the transition, which is essential to future governance of the country and the capacity of the (U.S. and its allies) to be able to continue to be supportive and be able to carry out the mission which so many have sacrificed so much to achieve.”

The preliminary results of the presidential election runoff suggested a massive turnaround in favor of former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, a onetime World Bank economist who lagged significantly behind former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah in first-round voting.

Abdullah, a top leader of the Northern Alliance that battled the Taliban before the American-led invasion, claims the runoff was a fraud, and his supporters have spoken of establishing a “parallel government,” raising the specter of the Afghan state collapsing. Abdullah was runner-up to Karzai in a fraud-riddled 2009 presidential vote before he pulled out of that runoff.

Chief electoral officer Zia ul-Haq Amarkhail has resigned, denying any involvement in fraud but saying he would step down for the national interest.

Kerry will seek to persuade both candidates to hold off from rash action while the ballots are examined and political leaders are consulted across Afghanistan’s ethnic spectrum. The U.S. wants to ensure that whoever wins will create a government that welcomes all ethnic factions.

If neither candidate gains credibility as the rightful leader, the winner could be the Taliban. Many Afghans fear the insurgent forces will only gain strength as the U.S. military presence recedes. Internal instability could aid the insurgency.

Abdullah and Ghani each have said that as president they’d sign a bilateral security agreement with the United States, granting American forces immunity from local prosecution. Without such an agreement, the Obama administration has said it would have to pull all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, a scenario that played out in Iraq three years ago. Karzai has refused to finalize the deal, leaving it to his successor.

James Dobbins, the State Department’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said this week some degree of fraud was expected, but it’s believed the fraud was “quite extensive.”

Speaking in Washington, Dobbins said the Abdullah campaign particularly mistrusts the impartiality of the Afghan electoral institutions.

Both campaigns and Karzai have asked the U.N. for help, he noted, and the U.N. has been designing a plan for deciding how ballots can be reviewed and which ones would be reviewed for possible fraud.

A U.N. audit, however rudimentary, probably could be done within two weeks, U.S. officials believe. The focus would be on clear fraud indicators, including districts with high turnout or more women going to the ballots than men.

Kerry also will meet with Karzai and U.N. officials.

Obama spoke to each candidate this week, asking them to allow time for investigations of ballot-stuffing. The White House said Tuesday that Obama warned that any move outside the law to seize power would mean the end of U.S. financial aid to Afghanistan.

Obama differentiated Afghanistan from Iraq, which he declared a “dumb war,” while considering Afghanistan a fight worth waging, ordering tens of thousands of new troops into the country in his first year in office.

The risk of a prolonged Afghan political crisis has alarmed U.S. officials already struggling to respond to sectarian tensions in Iraq that have broken out into open warfare.

The situations in Afghanistan and Iraq are distinct. But in each, the U.S. has spent more than a decade trying to set up democratic governments that could effectively police their own territories and stamp out threats to the American homeland.

And in both countries that objective is in peril, their futures threatened by a combination of poor leadership, weak institutions, interethnic rivalry and fierce extremist rebellions.

Suicide bombers and gunmen staged a deadly assault on government compounds Wednesday in southern Afghanistan, killing 30. The U.N. warned this week that such fighting in populated areas was a major cause for a 17 percent uptick in civilian deaths this year in a report that cast doubt on the capacity of government soldiers and police to protect the Afghan people after most U.S. and foreign forces leave.

TIME intelligence

Report: Chinese Hackers Target Information of Federal Employees

John Kerry, Liu Yandong
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, and Chinese Vice Premier Liu Yandong attend the plenary session of the annual China-U.S. High Level Consultation on People-to-People Exchange at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China Thursday, July 10, 2014. Andy Wong—AP

Revelations come as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visits Beijing for bilateral talks

Chinese hackers penetrated the computer networks of a U.S. government agency in March, gaining access to databases that store the personal information of all federal employees, in one of the only security breaches of government servers in the past year, senior Washington officials disclosed to the New York Times.

It is unclear how far the hackers delved into some of the databases of the Office of Personnel — which stores applications for security clearances that list personal information such as financial data, former jobs, past drug use and foreign contacts of tens of thousands of employees — before the threat was discovered and thwarted by federal authorities, officials said. It is also not known if the hackers were connected to the Beijing government.

A senior official of the Department of Homeland Security said that although the Office of the Personnel contains personal information, a response team within the Homeland Security had not “identified any loss of personally identifiable information” during the cyber attack. Government agencies are not obliged to inform the public about security threats unless it is verifiable that personal information has been stolen.

Although the Obama Administration encourages companies to be transparent about security breaches, the attack on the Office of Personnel was never announced to the public because “the administration has never advocated that all intrusions be made public,” White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden told the Times. However, relevant federal, state and local agencies were apparently notified of the threat. “None of this differs from our normal response to similar threats,” she added.

The U.S. and China have engaged in bitter cyber security disputes in the past. The U.S. Justice Department indicted five alleged Chinese hackers from the People’s Liberation Army for theft of corporate secrets in May. Following the indictment, China halted plans to create a bilateral group focused on cyber security. Documents revealed by National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden also showed that his former employer penetrated the systems of Huawei, a Chinese company that produces computer network equipment.

The new revelations come as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is visiting Beijing for the annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue — a discussion on American political, economic and security relations with China.

Although Kerry has not yet specifically mentioned the security breach, he said that cyber hacking on American companies had a “chilling effect on innovation and investment,” AP reports. Chinese foreign policy chief Yang Jiechi responded that the two countries had to establish trust to prevent future cyber attacks.

[New York Times]

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser