Sunday, August 20, 2017

Video, Photos: VOA Reports on Competing Boston Rallies

Thousands of leftist activists marched Saturday through downtown Boston in opposition to a planned free-speech rally that featured right-wing speakers, heavily outnumbering the few dozen people who showed up for the rally.


WATCH: VOA’s Carolyn Presutti in Boston


WATCH: VOA Spanish service broadcast Celia Mendoza in Boston


The rally was organized in July by a group calling itself Boston Free Speech, which says it is made up of a coalition of “libertarians, progressives, conservatives and independents.”


John Medlar, one of the group’s organizers, told multiple media outlets the rally would not welcome white supremacists, and he has denounced racist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan.


Despite the group’s rejection of white supremacists, ANSWER Coalition Boston, a local chapter of the Black Lives Matter movement, held a counterdemonstration, which it dubbed “Fight Supremacy,” to oppose the free speech rally.


The free speech rally, however, was sparsely attended, with never more than a few dozen people. Reuters reported that the event’s speakers could not be heard over the shouts by counterprotesters, who were kept away from the gazebo where the free speech rally was held.


The free speech rally ended a half-hour early — it had received a permit to gather from 12-2 p.m. EDT.


Police estimated that 15,000 people took part in the counterprotest march.

Prisma shifts focus to b2b with an API for AI-powered mobile effects



The startup behind the Prisma style transfer app is shifting focus onto the b2b space, building tools for developers that draw on its expertise using neural networks and deep learning technology to power visual effects on mobile devices.


It’s launched a new website, Prismalabs.ai, detailing this new offering.


Initially, say Prisma’s co-founders, they’ll be offering an SDK for developers wanting to add effects like style transfer and selfie lenses to their own apps — likely launching an API mid next week.


Then, in the “next month or so”, they also plan to offer another service for developers wanting help to port their code to mobile. This was, after all, how the co-founders originally came up with the idea for the Prisma app — having seen a style transfer effect working (slowly) on a desktop computer and realized how much potential it would have if it could be made to work in near real-time on mobile.


“The first plan is ready to go solution when you have an idea and want to implement, for example, style transfer or object recognition or something like face masks… or Snapchat lenses,” says CEO and co-founder Alexey Moiseenkov, fleshing out what’s coming from Prisma Labs. “If you need this ability we can offer you a ready to go SDK that you can implement in your app.”


Co-founder Aram Airapetyan gives an example of how their AI-powered image segmentation technology could also be used to allow users of Skype — for example —  to push a button to change or blank out the background during a video call. (Meaning this wouldn’t have to happen, for example.)


The wave of augmented reality apps that are coming down the smartphone pipe, driven by more powerful hardware and active encouragement from mobile platforms, could also help generate demand for Prisma’s effects, reckons Moiseenkov, as they can offer object tracking as well as face tracking via APIs or an SDK.


“The second part [of the b2b offering] is we feel that in a lot of companies developers are struggling with porting technologies to mobile,” he continues. “And we feel that we can offer them our own solution that we use internally — internally we have… a platform that can help us to experiment with our research and producing a lot of demo apps for internal usage and choosing the right one.”


They say they’ve been testing the developer tools with “some very big companies” — but won’t name any names as yet.


“We want to explore the CV [computer vision] area and help companies also produce a greater user experience with AI — helping people to communicate easier, to solve their tasks,” adds Moiseenkov.


“We feel that AI can help a lot of companies to improve the user experience a lot. The camera, working with images, filtering, de-noising, a lot of different stuff can happen — and that’s cool. I feel it can improve the overall quality of apps in App Store and Google Play.”


Prisma’s consumer app shot to painterly popularity last summer, offering smartphone users the ability to transform a standard smartphone photo by quickly and easily applying different graphical styles — to create, for example, a pastiche of a particular artwork or graphical effect.


The app achieved its effects not by applying filters to the photo but by utilizing neural networks and deep learning to process the original photo in the chosen style — generating a new image that combined both input sources.


By December last year, Prisma had racked up around 70 million downloads and earned itself a bunch of app store accolades. But it also attracted the attention of platform giants like Facebook who quickly rolled out style transfer features of their own — helping to cap the app’s momentum.


The team then experimented with adding social elements to the style transfer tool, to see if they could turn Prisma into a social platform in its own right — although, given how dominated the consumer social/messaging space is, by giants like Facebook and WeChat, that always looked like a forlorn hope.


Branching into b2b looks a more solid strategic step for Prisma, positioning the team to offer developers an accelerated route for burnishing the feature-set/UX of their own apps, and selling these b2b services with the help of demonstrable AI-powered visual effects expertise.


So although Prisma is shifting its monetization strategy (likely a usage-based SDK for the visual effects; and maybe a licensing model for the platform, it says), its consumer apps aren’t going away. Indeed, they now double as both testing ground and showcase for what its tech can do for other developers.


“Since the start of this year we were thinking about exploring our opportunities in terms of how to earn money in an efficient way, and we decided to go where we can help companies with computer vision or AI — in terms of more consumer-oriented applications,” Moiseenkov tells TechCrunch.


“We focus on effects; video effects on a mobile camera… We feel this is a really rich area for a company like ours. And also we feel that with our apps in the market we can experiment a lot with different technologies and this pairing can do a lot for us in terms of earning money.”


“We have a very strong R&D team,” adds Airapetyan. “We have lots of guys who are researching and investigating what we can do in terms of different technologies and AI-based products so we’ve been working on these technologies for a while.”


The team launched a second consumer app in July: a sticker-maker called Sticky that uses AI algorithms to perform quick cut-outs of selfies so they can be easily repurposed as colorful stickers.


Across both apps they say they’re getting between 5M to 10M MAUs [monthly active users] and ~500,000 DAUs [daily active users] at this point — with Airapetyan describing their user base as “very stable”.


Prisma’s own team is around 25-strong, split between offices in the Bay Area and Moscow. Though they say they’re also eyeing setting up a base in China — seeing “huge” potential to sell AI-related services in such a large and visually engaged app ecosystem.


The team has previously raised seed funding, although it has never disclosed how much. According to Crunchbase investors in its seed include Gagarin Capital Partners, Haxus and Nikolai Oreshkin. (Notably Haxus was also an investor in Fabby, a computer vision app recently acquired by Google.)


Moiseenkov says Prisma hasn’t raised any funding since the end of last year, and is not currently looking to raise — they want to see how their b2b play plays out first, he adds.


On the competition front for b2b CV/AI tools, he points to a couple of big companies in Asia offering similar services already — such as Face++.  He also name checks Clarifai as another competitor offering image recognition, as well as Google’s image processing APIs — though he claims Google isn’t offering developers a lot of choice vs the plan for Prisma Labs.


“We are working on a very, very wide-range of AI-based technologies,” adds Airapetyan.

From the edge of the Solar System, Voyager probes are still talking to Australia after 40 years

This month marks 40 years since NASA launched the two Voyager space probes on their mission to explore the outer planets of our Solar System, and Australia has been helping the US space agency keep track of the probes at every step of their epic journey.


CSIRO operates NASA’s tracking station in Canberra, a set of four radio telescopes, or dishes, known as the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex (CDSCC).


It’s one of three tracking stations spaced around the globe, which form the Deep Space Network. The other two are at Goldstone, in California, and Madrid, in Spain.


The Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex (CDSCC). CSIRO

Between them they provide NASA, and other space exploration agencies, with continuous, two-way radio communication coverage to every part of the Solar System.



Read more: Water, water, everywhere in our Solar system but what does that mean for life?



Four decades on and the Australian tracking station is now the only one with the right equipment and position to be able to communicate with both of the probes as they continue to push back the boundaries of deep space exploration.


The launch of Voyagers


The Voyagers’ primary purpose was to fly by Jupiter and Saturn. If all the scientific objectives were met at Saturn, then Voyager 2 would be targeted to continue on to Uranus and Neptune.


At each planetary encounter – running on power equivalent to the light bulb in your refrigerator – the Voyagers would transmit photographs and scientific data back to Earth before being accelerated towards their next target by the planet’s gravity, like a slingshot.


Timed to take advantage of a favourable alignment of the outer planets not expected to recur for another 175 years, Voyager 2 launched first on August 20, 1977, followed by Voyager 1 on September 5. Although launched second, Voyager 1 was sent on a faster trajectory and was timed to arrive at Jupiter ahead of Voyager 2.


Voyager 2 launches aboard Titan-Centaur rocket. NASA/JPL

When Voyager 1 arrived at Jupiter in 1979 the mission’s scientific discoveries began.


Jupiter revealed close up


The world watched as the Voyagers’ cameras sent back – via the tracking stations – close up images of Jupiter and its moons, letting us see these worlds in detail for the very first time.


From the turbulence surrounding huge storms on Jupiter, to a volcano erupting on Jupiter’s moon Io, to hints that the icy surface of Europa probably conceals an ocean underneath, the Voyager mission started to reveal the outer Solar System to us in inspiring detail.


Getting close to the Jupiter. NASA/JPL
Peering into Jupiter’s famous red spot. NASA/JPL
Voyager 1 captures a volcanic eruption on Jupiter’s moon Io. NASA/JPL
Voyager 1 image of Ganymede, Jupiter’s largest moon and the largest moon in the Solar System at 5,262km in diameter (compared to Earth’s Moon at 3,475km diameter). NASA/JPL/Image processed by Bjӧrn Jόnsson

Indeed, during the course of their 12-year mission, the Voyagers discovered 24 new moons orbiting the outer planets and refined NASA’s use of the Deep Space Network to listen to signals from distant spacecraft.


To Saturn and beyond


After Jupiter, both Voyagers went on to encounter Saturn. Voyager 1 achieved the major goal of closely approaching Saturn’s giant moon, Titan.


Both Voyagers passed by the ringed planet Saturn. NASA/JPL

Following this encounter, with its primary mission ended, Voyager 1 was flung on a northward trajectory above the plain of the orbits of the planets. Voyager 2 was subsequently targeted to travel outward on an extended mission to visit the next two gas giant worlds.


When Voyager 2 flew past Uranus in January 1986, the signals being received were much weaker than when it flew by Saturn, five years earlier.


Voyager 2 captures Uranus. NASA/JPL

Consequently, CSIRO’s radio telescope at Parkes was linked, or arrayed, with NASA’s dishes in Canberra to boost Voyager 2’s weak radio signal.


This was the first time an array of telescopes had been used to track a spacecraft. Yet this array would be insufficient to receive the even fainter signals expected when Voyager 2 reached Neptune in 1989.


CDSCC staff at Parkes monitoring the encounter with Uranus’ moon, Miranda, in 1986. CSIRO, Author provided

So in the time between the encounters, NASA expanded Canberra’s largest dish from 64 metres to 70 metres in diameter to increase its sensitivity, and then linked it again with the Parkes 64 metre dish, to maximise the data capture at Neptune.


Neptune’s bright wispy cirrus-type clouds can been seen against the blue atmosphere. NASA/JPL/ Image processed by Bjӧrn Jόnsson

The increased size and sensitivity of the Canberra dish also meant that it was able to support Voyager’s ongoing journey beyond the outer planets.


Robina Otrupcek tracking Voyager 2 at Neptune from the CSIRO Parkes telescope on the day before the close approach in 1989. CSIRO, Author provided

The Pale Blue Dot


In 1990 Voyager 1 turned its cameras towards home. The resulting photograph, known as the Pale Blue Dot, is our most distant view of Earth, a fraction of a pixel floating in a deep black sea.


This pale blue dot, less than a pixel in size, is Voyager 1’s view of Earth. NASA/JPL

The legendary astrophysicist Carl Sagan, involved with Voyager since its inception, reflected that this distant view of the tiny stage on which we play out our lives should inspire us “to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known”.


The Pale Blue Dot.

Both Voyagers have long since left the outer planets behind, two explorers heading into the galaxy in different directions, still sending data back to Earth and answering questions we didn’t even know to ask when they were launched 40 years ago.



Read more: The pale blue dot and other ‘selfies’ of Earth



Voyagers only talk to Australia


The Canberra tracking station continues to receive signals from both Voyager spacecraft every day, and is currently the only tracking station capable of exchanging signals with Voyager 2, owing to the spacecraft’s position as it heads on its southward path out of the Solar System.


The Parkes telescope tracking Voyager 2 at Neptune on the day of the close approach. CSIRO

Due to their respective distances, tens of billions of kilometres from home, the signal strength from both spacecraft is very weak, only one-tenth of a billion-trillionth of a watt.


In 2012, Voyager 1 became the first spacecraft to have entered interstellar space, the region between the stars. Lying beyond the influence of the magnetic bubble generated by our Sun, Voyager 1 is able to directly study the composition of the interstellar medium, for the first time.


Voyager 1 is still receiving commands that can only be sent from Canberra’s dishes. It is the only station with the high-power transmitter that can transmit a signal strong enough to be received by the spacecraft.


It has been an epic voyage for two spacecraft no bigger than small buses, two brilliant robots with an eight track tape deck to record data and 256kB of memory.


A golden message


The scientists and engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, who built the Voyagers and continue to operate them, planned ahead for Voyager’s legacy and its journey beyond our Solar System.


On board both spacecraft they placed a golden record, similar in concept to a vinyl record, featuring one and a half hours of world music and greetings to the universe in 55 different languages.


The golden record and instructions on how to play it. NASA/JPL

The cover art features a pictorial representation of how to play the record and a map reference to Earth’s location in our galaxy based on the positions of surrounding pulsars.


The first of the 31 recordings. Click on the video to hear the rest.

By 2030, both Voyagers will be out of power, their scientific instruments deactivated, no longer able to exchange signals with Earth. They will continue on at their current speeds of more than 17 kilometres per second, carrying their golden records like messages in bottles across the vast ocean of interstellar space.


Heading in opposite directions, southward and northward out of the Solar System, it will be 40,000 years before Voyager 2 passes within a handful of light years of the closest star system along its flight path, and 296,000 years before Voyager 1 passes by the bright star Sirius.


Beyond that, we may imagine them surviving for billions of years as the only traces of a civilisation of human explorers in the far reaches of our galaxy.

Heading in the Right (Re)Direction

If you’ve taken the time to get the hang of terminal basics, you’re probably at the point where you want to start putting together what you’ve learned. Sometimes issuing commands one at a time is enough, but there are cases when it can be tedious to enter command after command just to perform a simple task. This is where the extra symbols on your keyboard come in.


For the shell, the terminal’s command interpreter, those symbols are not wasted keys — they’re powerful operators that can link information together, split it apart, and much more. One of the simplest and most powerful shell operations is redirection.



3 Streams


To understand the workings of redirection, it’s important to know what sources of data your shell can redirect. In Linux there are three “streams” of data. The first is “standard input,” numbered by your system as stream 0 (since computers count from 0). It consists of the information or instructions submitted to the shell for evaluation. Most of the time, this comes from the user typing things into the terminal window.


The second, “standard output,” is numbered as stream 1. As you would imagine, it is the stream of data that the shell outputs after performing some process, usually to the terminal window underneath the command.


The final stream, “standard error,” numbered stream 2, is similar to standard output in that it generally takes the form of data dumped into the terminal window. However, it is conceptually separate from standard output so that the streams can be handled independently if desired. This is helpful when you have a command operating on lots of data in a complicated, error-prone operation, and you don’t want the data and errors produced to get dumped into the same file.


As you’ve probably guessed, redirection involves taking these streams and redirecting them from their usual destination to a different one. This is accomplished using the “>” and ”



Redirecting Standard Output


Let’s say you want to create a file that lists today’s date and time. Luckily for us, there is a command that returns that information, aptly called “date”. Commands normally return the information they process to shell’s standard output. To get it into a file, we insert “>” after the command and before the name of the destination file (with a space on either side).


With redirection, whatever file is specified after the “>” is overwritten, so unless you’re sure you won’t lose anything important, it’s best to give a new name, in which case a file with that name will be created. Let’s call it “date.txt” (the file extension after the period usually isn’t important, but helps us humans with organization). Our command then looks like this:


$ date > date.txt


This isn’t terribly useful, but we can build on it by executing another step. Let’s say you’re trying to monitor how the route your traffic takes over the Internet changes from day to day. The “traceroute” command will tell us every router, including the infrastructural ones in the backbone of the Internet, that our connection goes through from source to destination, the latter being a URL given as an argument.


Since we already have a file with a date in it, it would be practical just to tack on the data from our scan to the end of that file (“date.txt”). To do that, we simply use two “>” characters next to each other (“>>”). Our new redirection looks like this:


$ traceroute google.com >> date.txt


Now all we need to do is change the name of the file to something more descriptive, using the “mv” command with its original name as the first argument and the new name as the second, like so:


$ mv date.txt trace1.txt


By using a “”, we can redirect standard input by substituting a file for it.


Let’s say you have two files, “list1.txt” and “list2.txt”, that each contain an unsorted list. While each list contains items the other does not, there is some overlap. We can find the lines that are in common using the “comm” command, but only if the lists are sorted.


There is a “sort” command, but even though it will return a sorted list to the terminal, it won’t permanently sort the list, which puts us back at square one. We could save the sorted version of each list to its own file using “>” and then run “comm”, but this approach would require two commands when we could accomplish the same thing with one (and without leftover files).


Instead, we can use the ”


$ comm


As with parentheses in math, the shell processes commands in parentheses first and then proceeds with what’s left. Here, the two files are sorted and then fed into “comm”, which then compares them and presents the results.



Redirecting Standard Error



Finally, we can divert the flow of standard error to do things like create error log files, or aggregate errors and returned data.


For instance, what if you wanted to search your entire system for wireless interface information that is accessible to non-root users? For that, we can employ the powerful “find” command.


Normally, when a non-root user runs “find” system-wide, it dumps standard output and standard error to the terminal, but there is usually more of the latter than former, making it hard to pick out the desired information. We can solve this by simply redirecting standard error to a file using “2>” (since standard error is stream 2), which leaves only standard output returned to the terminal window:


$ find / -name wireless 2> denied.txt


What if you wanted to save the valid results to their own file, without cluttering the error file? Since streams can be redirected independently, we can just add our standard output redirection to the end of our command like so:


$ find / -name wireless 2> denied.txt > found.txt


Notice that the first “>” is numbered while the second isn’t. This is because standard output is stream 1 and the “>” redirect assumes stream 1 if no number is given.


Finally, if you wanted all the data from this command — errors and successful finds — deposited in the same place, you could redirect both streams to the same place using “&>” as follows:


$ find / -name wireless &> results.txt


This is just a basic outline of how redirection in the shell works, but these building blocks are enough to enable endless possibilities. Like everything else on the terminal, though, the best way to get a taste of what it can do is to try it out for yourself.




Jonathan Terrasi has been an ECT News Network columnist since 2017. His main interests are computer security (particularly with the Linux desktop), encryption, and analysis of politics and current affairs. He is a full-time freelance writer and musician. His background includes providing technical commentaries and analyses in articles published by the Chicago Committee to Defend the Bill of Rights.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Here are the top schools among founders who raise big dollars



You don’t need a fancy university degree to launch a startup and secure venture capital. But looking at the data on who gets funded, alumni affiliation sure seems to be a big contributing factor.


For this back-to-school series, Crunchbase is taking a look at how top U.S. universities rank in terms of graduating entrepreneurs who go on to launch funded startups. We look at which institutions launch the most startups, as well as the most highly capitalized.


But first, a spoiler alert: If you’re looking for surprises, stop reading now. The results largely confirm what people in venture and startup circles could probably guess. Stanford graduates more founders who raise more money than any other school. The rest of the list is rounded out by large Ivy League schools, prestigious technology institutes and some big state research universities.


Who launched the most startups


First, we ranked schools according to the number of alumni-founded startups that raised $1 million or more in the past year. No big surprises here, though it should be noted that a few universities are seeing some nice year-over-gains. MIT had 134 alum-funded startups that raised over $1 million, up from 108 in the year-ago period. The University of Washington went up from 35 to 41 alum-funded startups, while University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign had 44, up from 39 in the year-ago period.



Getting down to business


Crunchbase lists business schools separately, so we ranked them here (our search is for Aug. 1 2016 to Aug. 1 2017). Again, not a lot of surprises, unless you were thinking that Stanford would once again be on top. The top spot belongs, instead, to Harvard. (Perhaps it helps that Harvard is the larger business school, with over 1,800 students, compared to a little over 800 at Stanford.)



Who raised the most money?


When you look at which colleges have startup founders who raised the most funding, the results get more mixed-up. Because unicorns and near-unicorns are gobbling up such a big chunk of venture funding, having just one or two heavily funded companies in the mix really skews the results.


Take New York’s Baruch College, for instance. It has just four alum-founded startups that raised a million or more in the past year. But one of them happens to be WeWork, founded by Baruch alum Adam Neumann, which has disclosed fundraising of close to $4 billion this past year. The University of Chicago is another case in point. A single company, South Asian ride-hailing app Grab, accounts for more than three-fourths of all funding for alum-founded startups in the past year.


Nonetheless, it’s still fun to see which schools had the most heavily funded startup founders. Here are some of the top ones we found:



At several schools, a single company accounted for 50 percent or more of total funding. These include Carnegie Mellon (Argo AI), Baruch (WeWork), Harvard Business School (Grab) and University of Chicago (also Grab).


Overall, the data shows that while founders of hot startups don’t need a specific educational background, it helps to attend a school with certain characteristics. In particular, founders tend to study at universities that are prestigious and have well-known programs in STEM and business fields. It also helps to be based in a metro area with a strong tech ecosystem and access to venture capital.


Methodology


Generally, Crunchbase lists business school affiliations in lieu of the university. (For instance, alums who only attended Harvard Business School aren’t listed as Harvard University grads, too.) However, the database isn’t comprehensive in this area, so a few business school grads may be in the main university listing and vice versa. This does not significantly impact rankings, but it does create some margin of error.


Additionally, many business schools grant additional degrees and certifications beyond the traditional MBA, such as Harvard’s AMP (Advanced Management Program). For the first business school chart showing the total number of funded startups, Crunchbase includes recipients of both degree and certification programs who list themselves as alums in our database. However, we dropped short-term degree recipients for the largest rounds in the listing of funding totals.


Featured Image: Li-Anne Dias

Trump Says Decisions Made on War in Afghanistan

U.S. President Donald Trump said Saturday that his administration has made decisions on how to deal with the 16-year war in Afghanistan.


One day after meeting at the Camp David presidential retreat with his national security team to consider strategic options, Trump tweeted, “Important day spent at Camp David with our very talented generals and military leaders. Many decisions made, including on Afghanistan,” he wrote, without providing details.


White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Friday that a new strategy would “protect America’s interests” in the South Asian region and that details would be forthcoming.


“The president is studying and considering his options and will make an announcement to the American people, to our allies and partners, and to the world at the appropriate time.” She did not specifically mention Afghanistan.


Friday’s meeting was the most recent in a series of high-level talks on a broader security strategy for Afghanistan and the greater South Asia region. Finalizing a strategy has been delayed by internal differences.


Among the attendees were Vice President Mike Pence and Defense Secretary James Mattis.


Without offering hints, Mattis told reporters Thursday in Washington he anticipated a decision on the new approach to the war, the longest in U.S. history, would be made “in the near future.


Before a new strategy is adopted, the administration has said it would review its approach to the broader South Asia region, including Pakistan and India. Options include sending thousands of additional troops to the war-torn country or withdrawing them altogether, leaving private military contractors to help manage the country’s tenuous security situation.


After years of extensive support from the U.S. and other NATO member nations, the Afghan military is still struggling to resist the Taliban, which recently made advances in Afghanistan and the Pakistan border region. U.S. generals have described the conflict as a “stalemate.”


The U.S. Defense Department approved a plan months ago to send about 3,800 additional troops to assist the Afghan army, but some White House officials questioned whether more resources would be effective.


Trump authorized Mattis to determine troop numbers in Afghanistan, but several months later, allied troop levels remain unchanged. About 8,400 U.S. troops and an estimated 5,000 NATO troops are in the country, serving primarily in advisory and training capacities. The U.S. also maintains a force in Afghanistan that is tasked with fighting terrorist groups, including Islamic State and al-Qaida.


Mattis has said he would commit to troop level adjustments after the administration agrees on a coherent strategy for Afghanistan and the broader region, including Pakistan’s dealings with terrorist groups.


Rand Corporation South Asian expert Jonah Blank said intelligence reports he has received suggests an increase in troops is the currently the administration’s most favored option.


“It sounds like the administration is leaning towards a modest increase in troop levels, perhaps between 3,000 and 5,000 troops …without a termination date for their stay,” Blank said.


Blank predicted a modest troop increase would not “change the overall trajectory of the war” given the failure of a collective effort to end the long-running conflict.


The founder of the Blackwater security firm, Erik Prince, and DynCorp owner Stephen Feinberg last month offered proposals to the White House to use contractors instead of U.S. troops.


But increasing numbers of influential Afghans are concerned private firms would not be accountable. They are concerned using contractors risks a reoccurrence of the heinous acts Blackwater Security Company guards committed in Afghanistan and Iraq about a decade ago.


The ability to reverse course in Afghanistan has been hindered by the government’s struggles to stop Taliban advances without assistance. The Taliban now controls almost half the country, according to the latest report from the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.


Afghan forces are also fighting an IS affiliate that has gained a foothold primarily in eastern Afghanistan, presenting an additional challenge without prospects of a near-term solution. This week, a U.S. soldier was killed and nearly a dozen others injured in a clash with the IS affiliate.


Members of Congress have expressed frustration over the long-running war and the lengthy administration search for a new strategy to break the stalemate.


Republican Senator John McCain declared last week that “America is adrift in Afghanistan.”


“Nearly seven months into President Trump’s administration, we’ve had no strategy at all as conditions on the ground have steadily worsened,” added McCain, who is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.


McCain has proposed an expansion of the U.S. counterterrorism operation and additional support for the Afghan military.


More than 15 years ago, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and ousted the Islamist Taliban regime for giving al-Qaida a refuge to plot the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks against the U.S.


There is no sign to the end of the war. U.S. intelligence agencies determined in May that conditions in Afghanistan would almost certainly worsen through next year, even if the U.S. and its allies provided a modest increase in military assistance.

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