The Topline: A U.S. intelligence team is “combing over every detail” of a video purportedly showing many of the Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped last month by Islamic extremist group Boko Haram, the White House said Monday.
Press secretary Jay Carney detailed the U.S. search effort, which he said included over two-dozen officials from the military, law enforcement and diplomatic agencies, and was “up and running at our embassy in Nigeria.”
Five State Department officials and four FBI agents trained in “safe recovery, negotiations and preventing future kidnappings” have also been dispatched, Carney added.
U.S. officials are examining a 17-minute video released by Boko Haram and obtained by Agence France-Press and the Associated Press, which shows about 100 of the nearly 300 kidnapped girls at prayer in full-length black veils.
Carney said administration officials have seen the video and “have no reason to question its authenticity.”
Abubakr Shekau, leader of the extremist group, in the video said the girls had converted from Christianity to Islam and offered to trade them in exchange for members of his group imprisoned by the Nigerian government.
The kidnappings have attracted international condemnation, with first lady Michelle Obama expressing her outrage over the incident in her first solo weekly address on Saturday.
"The president and first lady and others believe we ought to be doing everything we can to assist the Nigerian government," Carney said.
But he also highlighted the difficulty of the search.
“I think it’s important to note that when we talk about assisting in the effort to locate the girls, we are talking about helping the Nigerian government search an area that is roughly the size of New England,” Carney said.
Afghan violence up, study says: A new report from the International Crisis Group says violence in Afghanistan is rising as U.S. and coalition troops pull out.
According to the report, published Monday, insurgent attacks increased between 15 and 20 percent from 2012 to 2013, and violence continues to escalate in 2014.
"With less risk of attack from international forces, they are massing bigger groups of fighters and getting into an increasing number of face-to-face ground engagements with Afghan security personnel, some of which drag on for weeks," the report says of Taliban forces.
"There are concerns that the balance could tip in favour of the insurgency, particularly in some rural locations, as foreign troops continue leaving," it adds.
The U.S.-led coalition's combat mission is scheduled to end in December, though military officials recommend leaving a minimum of 10,000 troops to continue training Afghan forces and conduct a counterterrorism mission there.
The administration has said it will not leave any troops unless Afghanistan signs a bilateral security agreement outlining the terms of their stay. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has decided to wait for the incoming president to sign it, which is not expected to happen until at least August.
The Crisis Group report warns that "Kabul may find these challenges difficult to overcome without significant and sustained international security, political and economic support."
Afghanistan warning: The Pentagon's former policy chief for special operations is warning the Obama administration that pulling out all U.S. troops from Afghanistan at year’s end would be a “major mistake.”
"Al Qaeda still seeks weapons of mass destruction. If acquired, they will immediately deploy them to try and mass murder American civilians," wrote Michael Sheehan in an op-ed in the New York Daily News on Sunday.
"This underscores the overriding importance of supporting a continuing U.S. military presence in Afghanistan past 2014 — one that will guarantee our ability to crush Al Qaeda central," wrote Sheehan, who served as assistant Defense secretary for special operations and low intensity conflict between 2011 and 2013.
Sheehan also implied that the White House pressured Pentagon and CIA officials to agree to a lower number of troops. Military officials have recommended leaving as many as 15,000 U.S. troops there and a minimum of 10,000.
"Pentagon and CIA officials have reluctantly agreed with White House staff that they can accomplish this mission with a force of some 10,000 U.S. troops post 2014," he wrote in a candid comment on internal interagency deliberations.
Sheehan, a career special forces officer and current distinguished chairman of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, said a U.S. presence was necessary to prevent the re-emergence of al Qaeda's core in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He added that military pressure on al Qaeda in the region over the last decade has prevented the terror group from attacking the U.S. homeland.
"We must not allow unwarranted pessimism to drive an unwise decision to withdraw entirely at the end of this year,” he wrote.
VA backlog: White House press secretary Jay Carney said Monday that the administration had made “significant progress” toward reducing the the patient backlog at the Veterans Affairs Department.
Carney said officials had “aggressively addressed” many issues and reduced the wait times for veterans to have their disability claims considered.
“Since the beginning of fiscal year 2014, 759,724 claims have been completed, which is 162,831 more than the number of claims completed this time last year, which shows an enhanced focus and dedication to providing our veterans with the service and care that they deserve,” Carney told reporters.
His comments come as the VA faces new scrutiny over allegations that some facilities misstated wait times to hide how long patients waited to receive care. According to allegations, some veterans died because of the long wait times.
Two key veterans groups have called on VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign, but the White House has expressed confidence that he can fix problems in the agency.
Shinseki is slated to testify Thursday before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
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