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US weighs its options in Afghanistan despite risk of deeper involvement

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As President Donald Trump’s administration drafts an Afghanistan policy, U.S. officials are seeking a way to reverse gains by militant groups without wading deeper into a 15-year-long war that has no end in sight.

In the past month, three U.S. service members have been killed in operations against Islamic State militants near Afghanistan’s porous border with Pakistan, where armed groups still find sanctuary.Officially, the U.S.-led international force in Afghanistan ceased combat operations at the end of 2014, but the conflict has proved difficult to exit without risking the overthrow of the government in Kabul.

Current and former officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the Trump administration is carrying out an inter-agency review, and while no decision has been made, the discussions revolve around adding 3,000 to 5,000 troops.

One of the officials said there is an emphasis on avoiding artificial deadlines. Former President Barack Obama wanted to reduce the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan before he left office. He had ordered in more troops in 2011 that peaked at about 100,000.

Nearly 9,000 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan; some 7,000 of them train and assist Afghan forces, and about 1,500 are a part of a counter-terrorism unit that mostly targets pockets of al Qaeda and Islamic State fighters, but also engages the Taliban.

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In February, Army General John Nicholson, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said he needs several thousand more international troops to break a stalemate with the Taliban.

Some U.S. officials question the benefit of sending more troops to Afghanistan. To date, more than 2,300 Americans have been killed and over 17,000 wounded since the U.S. invaded after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

These officials, who agreed to discuss political deliberations only on the condition of anonymity, said the situation in Afghanistan is even worse than they had expected, and that any politically palatable number would not be enough to turn the tide, much less create stability and security.

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“Before you can get to the question of how many troops is enough you have to have clarity on what is the goal,” said Christine Wormuth, former undersecretary of defense in the Obama administration.

“Is the goal to decisively defeat [the Taliban] and make Afghanistan into a viable state (or) is the goal to continue to prop up the government of Afghanistan?” Wormuth said.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali; additional reporting by Kay Johnson; editing by John Walcott and Grant McCool)


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Fatal drug overdoses drop in US for first time in decades

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Fatal drug overdoses in the US declined by 5.1 percent in 2018, according to preliminary official data released Wednesday, the first drop in two decades.

The trend was driven by a steep decline in deaths linked to prescription painkillers.

"The latest provisional data on overdose deaths show that America's united efforts to curb opioid use disorder and addiction are working," Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said, though he cautioned the epidemic would not be cured overnight.

The total number of estimated deaths dropped to 68,557 in 2018 against 72,224 the year before, according to the figures released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

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Judge blocks effort to conceal details in Trump campaign crimes case as Bill Barr’s DOJ mysteriously closes the probe

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A federal judge confirmed on Wednesday that the Justice Department has ended its investigation into campaign finance crimes committed by former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, indicating that no one else will face charges in the case. But Judge William Pauley also announced that, over the government’s objections, he will be making many of the underlying documents in the case public without requested redactions.

The case stemmed from Cohen’s efforts during the 2016 campaign to secure hush money payments for two women who said they had affairs with Donald Trump. Since investigators determined these payments were done in order to help secure Trump’s victory, the spending counted as campaign contributions that were never recorded and were, in fact, illegally concealed. The Trump Organization, Cohen has said, helped repay him for the costs of the hush money while disguising the payment falsely as a legal retainer.

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Rand Paul just blocked the 9/11 victim fund because it isn’t paid for — but didn’t care when it was a $1.5 trillion tax cut

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Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) blocked a call for unanimous consent on Wednesday to push forward with a funding extension for the victims of 9/11, claiming that the new spending should be paid for.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) called for the bill to be passed in the Senate by unanimous consent, but even a single lawmaker’s objection can block the move and slow down the process. The measure is still widely expected to pass, but Paul wants to use the opportunity to complain about the national debt.

“We need to address our massive debt in this country,” he said “We have a $22 trillion debt. We’re adding debt at about a trillion dollars a year. And therefore any new spending that we are approaching, any new program that’s going to have the longevity of 70-80 years, should be offset by cutting spending that’s less valuable. We need to at least have this debate.”

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