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North Korean advances add urgency to U.S. and South Korea war games

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JUDY WOODRUFF: But first, war games in Korea. For decades, the U.S. and South Koreans have practiced military exercises, often involving tens of thousands of troops and massive firepower. The U.S. says they’re designed to enhance readiness and maintain stability. The drills that started Monday and will continue into next week don’t look particularly threatening. But some Korea watchers are calling them provocative.

NewsHour special correspondent Nick Schifrin has this report.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

NICK SCHIFRIN: As visuals go, this is as provocative as this month’s U.S.-South Korea exercises get. Four men with 15 stars in front of a Patriot missile defense system in South Korea.

GEN. VINCENT BROOKS, U.S. Army: We have had the responsibility of providing military options to our national leaders. And exercises are a way of making sure that the option is a ready option, it’s a capable option.

NICK SCHIFRIN: General Vincent Brooks is the U.S.’ top commander in South Korea. He is leading exercises that are almost entirely computer simulations, as seen here in the 2013 version. It doesn’t look like much, but the exercises allow the U.S. and South Korea militaries to test their communication in case of war.

GEN. VINCENT BROOKS: Being in readiness to fight tonight if we have to is what we’ll do.

NICK SCHIFRIN: But exercises the U.S. calls defensive North Korea calls provocative. Today, state TV showed a smiling Kim Jong-un ordering the production of more rocket warheads and engines. And a not so subtle hint on the poster that North Korea is developing a new missile design. North Korea said the exercises were driving the peninsula to war, and vowed to respond.

WOMAN (through interpreter): U.S. warmongers ignored our warning that they should act cautiously and instead made a dangerous military provocation. They will not be able to avoid merciless retaliation and unsparing punishment.

BALBINA HWANG, Former State Department Adviser: To say these defensive, deterrence exercises are the cause of North Korea’s insecurity simply have it backwards.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Balbina Hwang is a visiting Georgetown professor and former senior State Department advisor on North Korea. She points out in the last few years, the North Koreans have dramatically increased their missile tests and missile capacities. And it’s those tests that make U.S. preparedness crucial.

BALBINA HWANG: It is very important for the U.N. forces, U.S. and South Korea, to be able to maintain constantly, modern, capable defense and deterrence. That is the purpose of the exercise.

NICK SCHIFRIN: But the U.S. and South Korea also conduct annual exercises with massive numbers of forces, and massive amounts of live fire. These are held every spring, and when considered alongside with this month’s exercises, the U.S. should acknowledge North Korean anxieties are legitimate, argues Mansfield Foundation President Frank Jannuzi.

FRANK JANNUZI, President, Mansfield Foundation: Every time we are practicing, whether it’s field exercises, or even a table top exercise, they get a little bit nervous about what we might do. They also worry about the capabilities that we’re demonstrating. And in this particular exercise in the past, we have sometimes demonstrated a capability to launch a decapitation attack, attacking the North Korean leadership.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Jannuzi participated in 2004 talks that froze and dismantled North Korea’s nuclear program in exchange for economic assistance. He was a State Department and congressional North Korea policy analyst. He believes these exercises contribute to increased tensions, and that the U.S. should change them to send a signal.

FRANK JANNUZI: Deterrence can be bolstered without flexing our muscles with B-52 bombers, or B-2 bombers, nuclear capable strike aircraft that could annihilate North Korea. We don’t need necessarily to practice those martial arts.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Over the last few weeks, some of the tension has cooled. Last night, President Trump even praised Kim Jong-un.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I believe he is starting to respect us, I respect that fact very much. Respect that fact. And maybe, probably not, but maybe, something positive can come about.

NICK SCHIFRIN: And North Korea, despite fiery rhetoric, has indicated it doesn’t want increased conflict.

BALBINA HWANG: All this talk and rhetoric about shooting missiles and sea of fire and nuclear war, that’s talk. But what were the actual actions? We do not see any particular increase in North Korean military readiness for war. We don’t see any sort of major maneuvering that would indicate North Korea is ready to launch any kind of major conventional or military strike.

FRANK JANNUZI: A close reading of North Korea’s statements has provided signals to the United States that in fact they are open to negotiations, they’re willing to sit down and talk with us. We need to test them. And we need to explore what, if anything, is possible through those talks.

NICK SCHIFRIN: And those commanders leading this month’s exercise, including Admiral Harry Harris, say they hope their readiness creates room for diplomacy.

ADM. HARRY HARRIS, U.S. Navy: Incredible combat power should be in support of diplomacy, and not the other way around.

NICK SCHIFRIN: So, the U.S. exercises and the North Korean rhetoric will continue. But, from all indications, both sides hope the preparations for war and the threats of war don’t lead to war.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Nick Schifrin.

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Boko Haram has used 83 children as human bombs so far this year

Girls walk on a street in Maiduguri, Borno, Nigeria August 30, 2016. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

Girls walk on a street in Maiduguri, Borno, Nigeria August 30, 2016. Photo by REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

The radical militant group Boko Haram has already used four times as many child suicide bombers in northeast Nigeria this year than it did in 2016, the United Nations Children’s Fund reported Tuesday.

Eighty-three children have been used as “human bombs” since the start of 2017. Fifty-five were girls, and 27 were boys, UNICEF said. In once instance, a baby was also strapped to a girl.

WATCH: A rare glimpse into the brutality of life under Boko Haram

The number of children has been increasing since the militant group first began using children as suicide bombers. In 2014, four girls were used to detonate explosives. In 2015, 21 girls were used and in 2016, 19 children were used – 15 girls and 4 boys.

Militants spot girls in markets and then drag them from their beds during nighttime raids. In some cases, parents are killed during the process.

“The use of children, especially girls, as human bombs, has now become one of the most defining and alarming features of the conflict in northeastern Nigeria,” said Milen Kidane, UNICEF’s chief of child protection.

The Boko Haram insurgency is fueled largely through systematic abduction of children, according to UNICEF. Militants spot girls in markets and then drag them from their beds during nighttime raids. In some cases, parents are killed during the process.

Many captives are then forced into early marriage and sexual slavery. Boys are typically forced to become child soldiers, according to UNICEF.

UNICEF speculates that Boko Haram uses children because they can be easily manipulated, and enter public spaces with very little suspicion.

Most children do not realize they are carrying explosives, and those that do have been brainwashed to carry out the attack, according to UNICEF.

UNICEF assumes that young girls are used more often because they are seen as the least suspicious.

“In these mostly Muslim communities, their attire, their dress code, its very easy to hide some of the bombs within their clothes,” Kidane said. “So it’s very convenient, in that sense, to use a girl child.”

Because of the increased use of children as “human bombs,” people are becoming fearful of the young, which has a devastating impact on children who are returning from abduction.

Additionally, young girls who return after being sexually abused often face discrimination, especially if they are pregnant.

Because of the increased use of children as “human bombs,” people are becoming fearful of the young, which has a devastating impact on children who are returning from abduction.

In an effort to re-acclimate children who have escaped and returned home, UNICEF is hosting interventions and reconciliation activities with entire communities, not just the children in northeast Nigeria, led by respected community and religious leaders, and influential women.

“We try to bring the communities together, so that they understand, in fact, that these children are victims whether they spent time with Boko Haram or not,” Kidane said. “We’re trying to bring everyone together, working together and trying to heal as a collective rather than to further separate the victims versus the perpetrators.”

READ MORE: What Is Boko Haram?

As a result of its offensive, the terrorist group has displaced over 2.3 million people since May 2013, making it one of the fastest growing displacement crises in Africa. The number of displaced children increased 60 percent over the last year, from 800,000 to 1.3 million children.

More than 670,000 of those children are no longer in school. More than 1,500 schools have closed after being attacked, looted, set on fire or used as shelter by displaced people.

UNICEF speculates that decades of extreme poverty in the region and inadequate education may have attributed to high number of recruits, who are offered food, power and the promise of spiritual rewards.

“Sometimes they’re told, ‘If you do this, you’ll get to heaven,’ or, ‘If you do this, it’ll help your family members.’ They’re told whatever it is that they need to hear in order to be convinced to do this,” Kidane said.

Nigeria is also one of four countries experiencing famine, leaving up to 450,000 children at risk of severe malnutrition this year, according to a UNICEF statement.

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Poll: 61 percent of Americans have little to no confidence in Trump’s ability to handle international crisis

Six in 10 Americans say they have little to no confidence in President Donald Trump’s ability to guide the nation during
         times of international crisis, according to a recent PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll.

Six in 10 Americans say they have little to no confidence in President Donald Trump’s ability to guide the nation during times of international crisis, according to a recent PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll.

Six in 10 Americans say they have little to no confidence in President Donald Trump’s ability to guide the nation during times of international crisis, according to a recent PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll.

For most Americans, “Trump does not pass the test of commander-in-chief,” said Lee Miringoff, who directs the Marist Institute for Public Opinion.

Few respondents in the poll conducted last week said they had a great amount of confidence in Trump’s leadership on the world stage, unless they belonged to the GOP. Nearly half of Republicans — 48 percent — said they had faith in the president’s global leadership, compared with 3 percent of Democrats and 15 percent of those who identified as politically independent.

Most U.S. adults saw diplomacy as the solution for dealing with North Korea, which is working to develop a nuclear missile that could reach American soil.

MORE: Does Kim Jong Un’s latest statement signal he’s open to diplomacy?

Nearly three-quarters of Americans prefer some form of diplomacy over warfare to diffuse tensions between the United States and North Korea.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters Tuesday that North Korea had in recent days “demonstrated some level of restraint that we have not seen in the past,” opening a door for possible dialogue. It was a stark contrast to hostile exchanges between Trump and North Korea earlier this month.

READ MORE: Do U.S. Navy collisions weaken our defense against a North Korean missile attack?

Four out of 10 Americans — 40 percent — said they think the United States should continue to pursue negotiations with North Korea. More than half of Democrats, 40 percent of independent voters and nearly a quarter of Republicans said they supported direct negotiations.

Another 33 percent of Americans said the United States should persuade China to intercede and put a stop to nuclear programs.

Four out of 10 Americans -- 40 percent -- said they think the United States should continue to pursue negotiations with
         North Korea.

Four out of 10 Americans — 40 percent — said they think the United States should continue to pursue negotiations with North Korea.

Just 16 percent of U.S. adults said they preferred more aggressive action. When asked, 9 percent of respondents said the U.S. should deploy air strikes to destroy North Korean nuclear facilities, while an additional 4 percent said U.S. troops should march into North Korea and overthrow the dictatorship of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

MORE: Does Kim Jong-un’s latest statement signal he’s open to diplomacy?

Only 3 percent of Americans said the United States should be the first to launch a nuclear attack against North Korea. Support was anemic at best even along political party lines: 5 percent of Republicans said they supported Trump striking first, along with 2 percent of Democrats and 1 percent of people who identified as politically independent.

One out of 10 Americans — 11 percent — aren’t sure how the nation should proceed in handling North Korea.

The NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist Poll contacted 1,125 U.S. adults using landline and mobile phones between August 14 and August 15. There is a 2.9 percent margin of error.

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Column: Trump’s plan for Afghanistan isn’t fresh, and here’s why

A U.S. soldier climbs a hill in Paktika province in southeastern Afghanistan. File photo by Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

A U.S. soldier climbs a hill in Paktika province in southeastern Afghanistan. File photo by Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

KABUL — The Trump administration’s announcement of a new Afghanistan policy turned out to be a bit of an anticlimax. President Donald J. Trump was desperate for a fresh approach. He did not find one for the simple reason that one does not exist.

The president began his speech Monday night by venting his “frustration over a foreign policy that has spent too much time, energy, money — and most importantly, lives — trying to rebuild countries in our own image instead of pursuing our security interests above all other considerations,” and he admitted that his “original instinct was to pull out.” But his national security team stressed to him the dire consequences of a U.S. pullout.

Simply leaving Afghanistan would risk squandering all that American troops have fought for since 2001. “Our nation must seek an honorable and enduring outcome worthy of the tremendous sacrifices that have been made, especially the sacrifices of lives,” Trump said. Clearly his advisers had counseled Trump to avoid the mistake that President Obama made in 2011 when he pulled out U.S. forces from Iraq, allowing the rise of the self-proclaimed Islamic State. “A hasty withdrawal,” Trump said, “would create a vacuum” that terrorist groups like the Islamic State and al-Qaida would fill, much as al-Qaida did when it used Afghanistan to plot the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. Trump went on to repeat a point often made by U.S. generals: “Today, 20 U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations are active in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the highest concentration in any region anywhere in the world.”

The private military option

Trump did not mention it in his speech, but he had seriously entertained the possibility of pursuing the mission in Afghanistan not with U.S. troops but instead with contractors, a proposal made by Erik Prince, founder of the private security firm Blackwater, and pushed by White House strategist Steve Bannon. But Bannon’s recent departure from the administration undercut support for that option, which was resisted by National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph F. Dunford Jr., and all of the other generals involved in Afghanistan policy.

Trump adopted the strategy crafted by McMaster and Mattis, both of whom served in Afghanistan.

Given that there are already far more contractors in Afghanistan (some 26,000) than U.S. troops (10,000), and given the spotty track record of contractors, including Blackwater, in both Afghanistan and Iraq, there is no reason to think that turning the Afghanistan mission over to them would have increased the odds of success. And it would have added fresh hazards, since it would be unclear under what authorities contractors would operate, how they would be disciplined for illegal conduct, and who would rescue them if they were in danger of being overrun or killed.

Trump adopted the strategy crafted by McMaster and Mattis, both of whom served in Afghanistan. The most important commitment that Trump made was to shift from a time-based approach on troop withdrawals to one based on conditions — meaning that the U.S. will only take out troops if the security situation improves. This was a sharp and welcome break from what President Obama did: In 2009, he ordered a surge that brought the number of troops to 100,000, nearly three times as many as when he took office, but he also announced that the reinforcements would start coming home within 18 months. And he stuck with that timetable despite the real progress underway in the Taliban’s strongholds in Helmand and Kandahar provinces. By telegraphing the troops’ departure so far in advance, the president simply encouraged the Taliban to wait them out.

A modest surge

In keeping with his vow to be vague, Trump did not spell out how much of an increase in U.S. force levels would take place under his watch. But by endorsing the Pentagon’s plans, he is widely expected to send an extra 3,900 troops — the number requested by General John W. Nicholson Jr., the senior U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization commander in Kabul. Other allies are likely to send a smaller number of reinforcements, as well, to join NATO’s Resolute Support mission, which advises and supports the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces. (Another 2,000 or so U.S. troops, primarily Special Operations forces, are pursuing a unilateral counterterrorism mission known as Operation Freedom’s Sentinel.)

President Obama had been focused on initiating peace talks with the Taliban, another pillar of policy that Trump repudiated. “Someday, after an effective military effort, perhaps it will be possible to have a political settlement that includes elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan,” he said, “but nobody knows if or when that will ever happen.” This was a welcome signal of resoluteness, even if it was somewhat undercut by Trump’s past flirtation with complete withdrawal and his evident reluctance to endorse his generals’ plan.

File photo of U.S. soldiers in Kandahar, Afghanistan, by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

File photo of U.S. soldiers in Kandahar, Afghanistan, by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Trump was in agreement with Obama on one major point, eschewing nation-building. Trump put this bluntly: “We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists.” Those words ring hollow, however, given the reality that neither Obama nor Trump had any interest in having the U.S. military carry the full burden of fighting the Taliban. Both presidents have put their faith in supporting the ANDSF to make them the primary combatants against the insurgency. But to have soldiers and police capable of sustained operations, Afghanistan must also have Defense and Interior Ministries capable of supporting them, along with training camps, supply depots, logistics systems, intelligence capabilities, and all the other instruments of power that can only be supplied by a functioning government. In effect, Trump was continuing an unstated commitment to nation-building when he said, “America will continue its support for the Afghan government and the Afghan military as they confront the Taliban in the field.”

Pressing Pakistan

Trump also continued the ritual started by President George W. Bush’s administration of demanding that Pakistan end its support for insurgents in Afghanistan without having any clear idea of how to accomplish that. The Trump administration has already held up $350 million in military aid, but there is no evidence that this financial pressure will cause a change in Pakistan’s fundamental policy, which it has been pursuing since the 1990s, of supporting the Taliban as a proxy for its interests in Afghanistan.

The Trump administration is now considering other steps, including sanctioning individual Pakistani officials and more freely bombing insurgent groups in Pakistan, but Trump did not announce either measure on Monday night. This is a sign of how controversial such policies remain. There have always been powerful countervailing arguments that the United States cannot afford to alienate Pakistan, because it is a supply route for U.S. forces in Afghanistan and because it cooperates with the United States against some transnational terrorist groups, such as al-Qaida and the Islamic State. Trump thus essentially left U.S. policy toward Pakistan unchanged.

The final policy pillar that Trump announced was a bit more of a break with Obama’s. Trump vowed not to micromanage the fight from Washington and to “expand authority for American armed forces to target the terrorists and criminal networks that sow violence and chaos throughout Afghanistan.”

This was a reference to the rules that Obama imposed as he withdrew U.S. forces; he mandated that the United States could only undertake offensive air strikes against transnational terrorist groups, such as the Haqqani network and al-Qaida, not the Taliban, unless U.S. troops were in harm’s way. More recently, Obama granted U.S. forces the authority to hit the Taliban if Afghan military units were in extreme danger, but Trump’s speech suggests that military commanders may soon be granted the authority to bomb the Taliban as part of offensive operations. Other rules, such as those restricting counterbattery fire in response to attacks on U.S. bases, may also be relaxed.  Trump would no doubt be happy to scrap rules designed to limit collateral damage from air strikes. But the generals are not seeking a return to the free-fire zones of the Vietnam War: They remain committed to the calibrated and careful use of force, so, in practice, this pillar of Trump’s strategy will make a difference only at the margins.

Battlefield stalemate

Trump’s speech represents more a minor recalibration than a wholesale rethinking of U.S. policy in Afghanistan. The changes that will result are minimal. General Nicholson is likely to increase the number of U.S. advisors who will work with Afghan brigades and battalions in the field rather than simply with the corps-level headquarters, which are far removed from combat. Nicholson is also likely to increase the U.S. airpower available to support Afghan forces while continuing to expand Afghanistan’s own air force and double the size of its special operations forces. This should increase the capacity of the ANDSF, but it will not lead to a radical realignment on the battlefield. The Taliban today control 11 percent of the country’s population and contest another 29 percent, comprising some 14 million Afghans, and, absent a far more ambitious U.S. surge, the insurgency cannot be significantly rolled back. At best, the modest Trump buildup will prevent further deterioration of the government’s position. It will not allow the president to achieve his fervent desire to “win” the war.

Trump’s speech represents more a minor recalibration than a wholesale rethinking of U.S. policy in Afghanistan.

Trump seemed to acknowledge as much in his carefully worded speech: “From now on, victory will have a clear definition. Attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing al-Qaida, preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan, and stopping mass terror attacks against America before they emerge.” Note that while vowing to “obliterate” the Islamic State and “crush” al-Qaida — terms that have no strict military definition — Trump pointedly did not promise to defeat the Taliban. The most he said is that he would prevent them “from taking over Afghanistan.”

The Trump administration has concluded that it can live with a situation that even U.S. generals describe as a “stalemate,” because the cost of victory — sending hundreds of thousands of additional troops — is too high for the United States to pay and might be impossible to achieve in any case, given that the Taliban continue to enjoy outside support, not only from Pakistan but also from Iran and Russia. In short, a war that started 16 years ago will continue indefinitely with no victory in sight, because from Washington’s perspective there is simply no viable alternative.

This column first appeared on Aug. 22 on the Council on Foreign Relations’ website.

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