US ‘not winning’ in Afghanistan: Pentagon chief

Mattis’s latest assessment comes nearly 16 years after the US-led invasion of Afghanistan and amid a war that continues to claim the lives of US troops each year — and those of thousands of local forces and civilians.

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The “Taliban had a good year last year, they are trying to have a good one this year,” Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee at a hearing about the Pentagon’s budget.

“Right now I believe the enemy is surging.”

US military commanders, who saw fragile security gains eroded under Obama-era troop draw-downs, have been pushing for a new strategy that could see thousands of additional soldiers deploy to Afghanistan to help train and advise beleaguered Afghan partners.

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Media reports have said Mattis is considering asking for 3,000 to 5,000 additional US and NATO troops, but the defense chief has said little on the matter. 

In February, General John Nicholson, who commands NATO forces in Afghanistan, warned that he needs “a few thousand” more troops to reverse what he called a stalemate.

Despite months of expectation that a new Afghanistan strategy announcement is imminent, Mattis said this would not be ready before mid-July.

Republican Senator John McCain, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, voiced his “palpable” frustration.

“We’re now six months into this administration, we still haven’t got a strategy for Afghanistan,” McCain said, noting it was hard to get behind an Afghanistan budget request without knowing what the plan is. 

“We know what the strategy was for the last eight years: Don’t lose. That hasn’t worked.”

Mattis acknowledged the reality on the ground.

“We are not winning in Afghanistan right now. We will correct this as soon as possible,” he said.

Related readingResidual force 

The defense chief, who was a Marine combat commander in Afghanistan at the start of the war, stressed America must not walk away from the country and suggested a long-term residual US force needs to remain to help the Afghan army maintain a baseline of security.

“It’s going to be an era of frequent skirmishing and it’s going to require a change in our approach from the last several years if we’re to get it to that position,” Mattis said. 

The Afghan conflict is the longest in American history, with US-led NATO troops at war there since 2001, after the ousting of the Taliban regime just months after the September 11 terror attacks in the United States.

The body of a US soldier killed in a suspected attack in Afghanistan returned to the USAAP

The ongoing security crisis has seen not just the Taliban gain ground, but also the emergence of other groups such as a local Islamic State affiliate. 

On Saturday, the Taliban claimed responsibility for an insider attack in which an Afghan commando turned his weapon on American troops, killing three and wounding another. 

US troops in Afghanistan number about 8,400 today, and there are another 5,000 from NATO allies, who mainly serve in a training and advisory capacity.

France and Britain announce anti-terror action plan

After talks with British Prime Minister Theresa May in Paris, French President Emmanuel Macron said both countries agreed that social networks were not doing enough to stamp out terror propaganda.

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Speaking after terror attacks in Manchester and London, Macron said the two countries had worked on a “very concrete” action plan.

He said one of the key measures would aim at preventing the incitement of “hate and terrorism” on the internet.

May said she and Macron agreed that “more should be done to tackle the terrorist threat online”.

She said the British and French campaign was aimed to “ensure the internet cannot… be used to host the radicalising material that leads to so much harm.”

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May said the British government was already working with social media companies “to halt the spread of extremist material and poisonous propaganda that warps young minds”, adding: “But we know they need to do more.

“Today we can announce that the UK and France will work together to encourage organisations to do more and abide by their social responsibility to step up their efforts to remove harmful content from their networks.”

The campaign includes exploring the possibility of legal penalties against tech companies if they fail to take the necessary action to remove unacceptable content, May said.

Britain was rocked by a suicide bombing at a pop concert on May 22 which killed 22 people, including children, followed two weeks later by a knife and van attack in central London, which left eight dead.

France has been a constant target for jihadist attacks since 2015, with more than 230 people killed.

Macron set for landslide majority in parliament

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NT outback cat-proof fence world’s biggest

When the cat’s away, the mice and a raft of other endangered native animals will play.

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At least that’s what a group of conservationists in Australia’s red centre are hoping, with work under way on the world’s largest feral cat eradication project.

The Shark Bay Mouse is one of 10 creatures to benefit from a $10 million cat-proof fence being built in the central desert region to help combat an extinction crisis.

The project will create a 70,000-hectare bushland haven where reintroduced native mammals can thrive once again.

Australian Wildlife Conservancy chief executive Atticus Fleming says 30 native mammal species have disappeared since European settlement – the worst extinction rate on the planet.

He says cats are to blame for this “marsupial ghost town”, with the predators killing millions of native animals every night.

There are up to 11 million feral cats across the country, threatening at least 60 native mammals that are currently in danger of extinction.

They include bilbies, numbats, bettongs and rock wallabies.

AWC is raising $10 million to build a 180-kilometre electrified fence in the heart of the nation by 2021.

Stage one has already begun at Newhaven Sanctuary, 350km northwest of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory, where a 45km fence will enclose a 9500-hectare area by early next year.

This initial stage costs $5 million over four years and AWC has raised half of that, including $750,000 from the federal government.

The foxes, rabbits and cats should be removed by the end of 2018, after which animals including the central rock rat, mala and phascogales will be reintroduced.

The restoration of ecological health will also benefit endangered reptiles and declining birds, Mr Fleming says.

AWC is partnering with traditional owners by tapping into the expertise of indigenous trackers and creating local jobs.

“The mala is a little kangaroo which is of great cultural significance to the Warlpiri people, and this project will increase numbers by over 400 per cent,” he said.

“It’ll more than double the population of at least six of Australia’s most endangered mammals.”

Verizon takes over Yahoo in $US4.5b deal

Verizon has taken over Yahoo, completing a $US4.

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5 billion ($A6 billion) deal that will usher in a new management team to attempt to wring more advertising revenue from one of the internet’s best-known brands.

Tuesday’s closure of the sale ends Yahoo’s 21-year history as a publicly traded company.

It also ends the nearly five-year reign of Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, who isn’t joining Verizon. She will walk away from Yahoo with a compensation package currently worth about $US125 million ($A166 million), including her severance pay and stock awards that will be fully vested with the deal’s completion.

Yahoo’s email and other digital services such as sports, finance and news will be run by Tim Armstrong, who has been running AOL since Verizon bought that company for $US4.4 billion ($A5.8 billion) two years ago. Armstrong will now be CEO of a new Verizon subsidiary called Oath, which will consist of Yahoo and various AOL services.

About 2,000 Yahoo and AOL workers are expected to lose their jobs as Verizon trims expenses and eliminates overlapping positions.

Despite the company’s struggles, Yahoo’s stock more than tripled while Mayer was CEO, creating more than $US30 billion ($A40 billion) in shareholder wealth.

But most of those gains stemmed from Yahoo’s stake in Alibaba, a Chinese e-commerce company whose fortunes have soared while Yahoo faded. The Alibaba investment was engineered 12 years ago by Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang in what is now widely regarded as one of the savviest deals in internet history.

Yahoo’s stock performance is the main reason most shareholders haven’t complained too loudly about Mayer’s lavish compensation package.

Tanning without sunlight: Scientists develop drug which reduces cancer risk

The drug stimulates cells that produce the pigment that absorbs ultra-violet light, the researchers said in the US journal Cell Reports published on Tuesday.

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They stressed that further tests are needed to safeguard against potential side-effects in humans.

Applied as a cream to the skin, the drug allowed red-haired mice to develop a deep tan. Like their pale-skinned human counterparts, the mice are particularly susceptible to the damaging effects of the sun’s ultra-violet rays.

The original breakthrough in mice was announced more than a decade ago, in a study published in the British journal Nature in 2006. But it has taken scientists that much time to work out how to make much thicker human skin absorb the substance.

The initial report revealed that a substance called forskolin gave red-haired mice a deep tan without exposure to UV light.

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But because human skin is relatively hairless compared to animals’, it has evolved to be much tougher in order to protect against heat, cold and other environmental factors, and the topical substance could not penetrate it effectively.

“Human skin is a very good barrier and is a formidable penetration challenge. Therefore, other topical approaches just did not work,” said David Fisher, chief of dermatology at Massachusetts General Hospital, a professor of dermatology at Harvard Medical School, and one of the authors of the study.

“But 10 years later, we have come up with a solution. It’s a different class of compounds, that work by targeting a different enzyme that converges on the same pathway that leads to pigmentation,” he said.

The scientists tested the substance on samples of human skin kept in laboratories and found that it darkened in proportion to the dosage applied. The tan lasted several days.

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In animal tests, red-haired mice became “almost jet black in a day or two with a strong enough dose,” the researchers observed. When the dosage was removed, normal skin regeneration meant the color faded within a week or so.

“We believe the potential importance of this work is towards a novel strategy for skin cancer prevention,” Fisher said.

“Skin is the most common organ in our bodies to be afflicted with cancer, and the majority of cases are thought to be associated with UV radiation,” he said.

The long-term aim would be to create a cream that develops a tan without exposure to sunlight but which also absorbs harmful UV rays like traditional sun screens.

Breast cancer screening rates for Arabic-speaking women ‘alarming’

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May tough on terror in France visit

British Prime Minister Theresa May says the UK and France will work together to press internet companies to reduce extremist material online.

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May is meeting French President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday in her first foreign trip since a catastrophic election that weakened her leadership as Britain heads into tough talks on quitting the EU.

With Macron by her side, May said the two nations will do more to “stamp out this evil” of terrorism.

Major internet companies have failed to live up to prior commitments to do more to prevent extremists from finding a “safe space” online she said, and they will look at creating legal liability for internet companies if they fail to do so.

France and Britain have experienced several extremist attacks in the past few years.

Meanwhile, her French counterpart focused on the looming start date for Brexit talks.

The door is still open for the UK to remain in the European Union, Macron said, but stressed “the decision has been taken by the sovereign British people. I do respect that”.

Macron said he wants Brexit negotiations to start as soon as possible, following a working dinner with May.

British officials have suggested they won’t be able to formally start Brexit negotiations next week as planned.

Macron said he wants the negotiations to be led and coordinated by a European mission.

The two are on opposite fronts of the Brexit negotiations – Macron wants the remaining EU nations to stand tough and unite even more closely as Britain leaves.

The two leaders are to watch a France-England football match that will honour victims of the attacks with a moment of silence and the Oasis song Don’t Look Back in Anger played by the French Republican Guard.

Cholera crisis in war-torn Yemen

A cholera epidemic raging across Yemen is spiralling out of control, with around one child falling sick every minute.

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Thousands of people could die in the coming months with up to 300,000 cases predicted, Save the Children aid agency said on Wednesday, adding that the infection rate had tripled in a fortnight.

Two years of civil war, near-famine conditions and a lack of access to clean water have exacerbated the spread of cholera – a diarrhoeal disease that can kill within hours.

The country’s health system – already on its knees – is reeling with hospitals overwhelmed and quickly running out of medicines and intravenous fluids.

The UN children’s agency UNICEF said more than 920 people had died from the disease since late April and more than 124,000 cases had been recorded – almost half of them children.

Grant Pritchard, Save the Children’s representative in Yemen, called for an increase in emergency funding to tackle the epidemic.

“It’s time for the world to take action before thousands of Yemeni boys and girls perish from an entirely preventable disease,” he said in a statement.

“Disease, starvation and war are causing a perfect storm of disaster for Yemen’s people. The region’s poorest country is on the verge of total collapse, and children are dying because they’re not able to access basic healthcare.”

Yemen’s civil war, pitting the Iran-allied Houthi group against a Western-backed Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia, has left 19 million people needing humanitarian aid with many on the verge of famine.

More than two million children are acutely malnourished making them particularly vulnerable to cholera as their weakened systems are less able to fight off disease, Save the Children said.

Pritchard said restrictions on bringing aid and medical supplies into Yemen, including delays accessing Hodeidah port and the closure of Sanaa airport, were compounding difficulties in halting the epidemic.

Unaffordable transport is also making it hard for people to reach treatment.

Coalition MPs play down energy debate

Federal government MPs insist they’re sensibly working through discussions on changes to climate and energy policy, rejecting claims of a showdown behind closed doors.

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A coalition party room meeting had to be extended into Tuesday evening to debate a report by Chief Scientist Alan Finkel which, amongst other recommendations for the nation’s electricity system, proposes a clean energy target.

Nationals MP Mark Coulton was angered to see reports based on leaks by “some pissant”.

“The reports … are simplistic and do not really relate the burden of responsibility that the coalition is carrying on their shoulders at the moment,” he told reporters in Canberra on Wednesday.

Mr Coulton said it was wrong to portray MPs as either being “for Finkel, or against Finkel”.

Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce said the various views would be used to prepare a submission to cabinet, and then return to the party room.

“That’s how a proper democratic process should work,” he said.

Mr Joyce insisted the party hears the need for affordable power.

“We don’t have that titanic religious position the Labor Party has where you can’t mention the word coal.”

Junior minister Zed Seselja labelled the discussion a “very healthy debate” focusing on lower energy costs, energy security, and meeting emission reduction targets.

Liberal MP Jane Prentice raised the need to consider nuclear power.

Labor senator Anthony Chisholm said coalition MPs were was fighting among themselves while Australian families were missing out.

“The Abbott-Turnbull wars are back,” he told reporters.

Senator Chisholm pointed to the reported tense exchange between former prime minister Tony Abbott and Liberal frontbencher Craig Laundy after the meeting.

“It shows that this is not business as usual,” he said. “They are absolutely at war over the Finkel report and the tragedy is that the Australian people are the losers from it.”

Greens MP Adam Bandt said the government should cut loose Mr Abbott and fellow climate change deniers.

“I am sick of this parliament wasting so much time trying to devise a climate policy just aimed at keeping Tony Abbott happy,” he said.

Consumer confidence stalls on GDP result

Consumer confidence has stalled after three consecutive weeks of lifts, following the release of first quarter economic growth figures.

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The ANZ-Roy Morgan Consumer Confidence Index was unchanged at 112.9 for the week to June 11, on the back of a 0.6 per cent rise the week before.

ANZ head of Australian Economics David Plank said the headline number masked significant changes in the sub-indices.

“Views towards economic conditions fell, whereas confidence in financial conditions rose quite sharply,” he said in a statement on Wednesday.

Households’ expectations of current economic conditions dropped a sharp 5.2 per cent, almost entirely unwinding gains made over the past three weeks.

Views towards future economic conditions continued to slide with a 2.6 per cent decline, following a 3.2 per cent fall the previous week.

It is now at its lowest level since September 2015.

But, despite the drop, households’ views towards financial conditions improved “quite dramatically” jumping 9.4 per cent to its highest level in 14 weeks, Mr Plank said.

“This is encouraging in terms of the outlook for household consumption,” he said.

“Although we expect that persistent weakness in wage growth and high levels of household debt will continue to weigh on spending.”

Views towards future conditions continue to improve, rising 1.5 per cent building on a 2.7 per cent lift the previous week.

Mr Plank said strength in business conditions along with moderate growth in ANZ Job ads suggest that employment growth should continue at a decent pace.

“This should broadly support confidence over the coming months.”

Data released on June 7 indicated that gross domestic product slowed to 0.3 per cent in the March quarter – taking annual growth to 1.7 per cent – against economists’ expectations of 0.1 per cent growth.

Farmers bank to remove middle man: Barnaby

The federal government is promising better support for Australian farmers under proposed new laws to streamline the rollout of loans and programs.

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Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce on Wednesday introduced to parliament a bill to establish the Regional Investment Corporation, which will be based in the NSW regional city of Orange from 2018.

The corporation will administer the government’s $2 billion farm business concessional loans from July 2018, as well as the $2 billion National Water Infrastructure Loan Facility to give out loans to states and territories to build dams.

Mr Joyce said delivering programs and loans through the states – as it’s done now – was unwieldy and inconsistent.

The federal government has to negotiate separately with each state to change an existing arrangement or roll out a new program to farmers.

“Establishing the corporation will remove the middle man, allowing us to be more responsive in providing loans to farm businesses,” he told MPs.

“(It) will be a significant change in the way the Commonwealth works with farmers during times of need.”

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has promised to scrap the corporation if elected to government.

Labor has described it as a “Barnaby Joyce boondoggle”.

“You’ve only got to look at their record,” Queensland Labor senator Anthony Chisholm told reporters in Canberra.

The Northern Australia Infrastructure Fund, created two years ago, had “not spent one cent or created one job other than for the executive”.

“We do know that one it gets close to an election they do try and pork barrel in their own seats,” he said.