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New hope for peace in Afghanistan, but does it mean the Taliban has won?

A closer look at the day's most notable stories with The National's Jonathon Gatehouse: Afghanistan peace proposal raises big questions; sentencing hearing in Humboldt Broncos bus crash case requires special courtroom arrangements; lack of sleep among Canadian adolescents has become an epidemic.

Newsletter: A closer look at the day's most notable stories

Afghan National Army soldiers stand guard at a checkpoint in Kabul in October. The United States appears to have struck a draft peace deal with the Taliban, paving the way for the full withdrawal of remaining American troops. (Rahmat Gul/Associated Press)

Welcome to The National Today newsletter, which takes a closer look at what's happening around some of the day's most notable stories. Sign up here and it will be delivered directly to your inbox Monday to Friday.

TODAY:

  • The United States and Afghan governments appear to have struck a draft peace deal with the Taliban.
  • The sentencing hearing began today in the Humboldt Broncos bus crash case, and the number of people who want to attend has required some special arrangements.
  • The lack of sleep amongst Canadian adolescents has become an epidemic, and it has health experts worried.
  • Missed The National last night? Watch it here.


Afghanistan peace proposal

The United States appears to have struck a draft peace deal with the Taliban, paving the way for the full withdrawal of American troops in exchange for a pledge that foreign terrorists won't be allowed to use the country as a base.

The tentative understanding, reached over six days of talks in Doha, Qatar, last week, has been confirmed by Zalmay Khalilzad, the chief U.S. negotiator and special representative to Afghanistan.

"We have a draft of the framework that has to be fleshed out before it becomes an agreement," the envoy told the The New York Times in an interview in Kabul today. "The Taliban have committed, to our satisfaction, to do what is necessary that would prevent Afghanistan from ever becoming a platform for international terrorist groups or individuals."

U.S. special envoy for peace in Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, centre, speaks during a roundtable discussion with Afghan media at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul on Monday. (U.S Embassy/via Reuters)

The conflict in Afghanistan has now stretched on for 17 years — longer than both World Wars and the UN action in Korea combined.

The stuttering, stop-and-start peace negotiations have been going on for nine years now.

The big question, however, is what this deal will mean for the NATO-backed government of President Ashraf Ghani. The Taliban has refused to directly engage with what it terms a "puppet regime," although the framework reportedly calls for face-to-face talks once a firm U.S. withdrawal date is set.

In a televised speech to the nation today, Ghani again begged the Taliban to come to the table, but suggested that there are some "non-negotiable" values that must be respected.

"National unity, national sovereignty, territorial integrity, a powerful and competent central government, and basic rights of the citizens of the country," Ghani said, checking off the list.

"We want peace quickly, we want it soon, but we want it with prudence," he added.

Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani speaks during a live TV broadcast at the presidential palace in Kabul on Monday. (Presidential Palace office/via Reuters)

But the Afghan president is hardly in a position to make demands.

The latest estimates suggest that his government controls or even "influences" little over half of the country, down from almost two-thirds in the fall of 2015, despite the presence of 14,000 U.S. troops and 8,000 more from other NATO nations.

Last week, during an appearance at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Ghani disclosed that 45,000 Afghan police and soldiers have been killed since he took office in late September 2014, along with 72 foreign troops — a loss of almost 29 security force members per day.

Afghan security forces man at the site a day after an attack in Kabul on Jan. 15. A Taliban suicide bomber detonated an explosive-laden vehicle in the capital. (Rahmat Gul/Associated Press)

And if anything, the government death toll appears to be accelerating.

Last week, a suicide bomb-and-gun assault on a special forces military base near Kabul killed at least 126 soldiers.

Not surprisingly, the Afghan National Security Forces, which will receive $5.199 billion in U.S. funding this year alone, are having trouble meeting their recruiting targets and are operating 11 per cent below full strength.

In comparison, Taliban militants, who have also suffered horrific losses, now number 60,000 — up 15,000 from a decade ago.

Afghan police attend their graduation ceremony in Helmand on Nov. 25, 2018. Some 200 Afghan police graduated from a three-month military course, but the nation is having trouble getting enough recruits to fill shortages in the ranks of its police force. (EPA-EFE)

Donald Trump claimed he had a path to victory in Afghanistan, almost doubling the number of U.S. troops and buying into an air-power strategy that one of his generals likened to a "tidal wave," promising that it would be "the beginning of the end for the Taliban."

But the push lasted just over a year, and in December an impatient Trump ordered the Pentagon to start drawing up plans to cut U.S. troops by half, prompting the resignation of his defense secretary.

News of the tentative peace deal is drawing some unfavourable comparisons and pointed criticism on social media.

Should the Taliban come to share power, or again succeed in toppling the government as it did in 1996, it will be hard to cast it as anything but a defeat for U.S. foreign policy and the many NATO allies, including Canada, who spent blood and treasure trying to create a more modern and open society.

And a full U.S. withdrawal will surely further strengthen Iran's hand in the region.

A ceasefire would, however, offer some respite to civilians — the main victims in the 17 years of non-stop fighting.

The United Nations estimates that at least 10,000 non-combatants were killed or injured in 2017.

And a report released this morning by a Kabul-based NGO put the 2018 civilian death toll at 2,615 with another 4,072 wounded.

Across the country last year there were 40 suicide attacks, killing 744 people and injuring 1,668 others.


Victim impact of Humboldt crash

The sentencing hearing began today in the Humboldt Broncos bus crash case, and the number of people who want to attend has required some special arrangements, correspondent Susan Ormiston writes from Saskatchewan.

On this bitterly cold Monday morning in Melfort, Sask., hockey moms and dads, billet families, and Humboldt Broncos teammates struggled into a community centre which had been transformed, overnight, into a courthouse.

Body-scan security now restricts the entrance to the Harry Vicker Centre, a sports and events venue in this town of about 6,000 people. Saskatchewan Judge Inez Cardinal's desk was carted into the large gymnasium on Sunday night and set up on a riser, with a black curtain draped behind. Lawyers' tables were spread out in front.

The local courthouse simply could not accommodate the hundreds of people who wanted to attend the sentencing hearing for Jaskirat Singh Sidhu, the 29-year-old truck driver who pleaded guilty to 29 counts of dangerous driving causing death and injury.

Jaskirat Singh Sidhu's hearing is being held at the community centre in Melfort, Sask., to accommodate the number of people who want to attend. The gymnasium that has been converted into a temporary courtroom is seen here from behind the judge's desk on Monday morning, before the start of the hearing. (Jenn Barr/CBC)

"This is uncharted ground," says Aaron Fox, a defence lawyer in Regina who is unconnected to this particular case, but who has acted for clients facing similar charges.

"The most challenging part of the decision for her [Judge Cardinal] will be how to address the fact that there are so many people killed and seriously injured," Fox says.   

"It isn't a case of deciding you'll get X amount of time for this offence and then we'll multiply it by the number of charges. It is a situation where, at the end of the day, you'll look at it and say 'OK, what's what's the best total sentence.'"

Case law suggests sentencing for such charges ranges from a fine to five or six years in prison, while the maximum sentence is 14 years for causing death and 10 years for injury — but there has never before been a case with so many casualties.

"I don't know that she can render a decision that's going to satisfy many of the people that are involved," says Mike Nolin, a Saskatoon lawyer.

Jaskirat Singh Sidhu arrives for his sentencing hearing in Melfort, Sask., on Monday. (Susan Ormiston/CBC)

For the families who've travelled here from Alberta, Manitoba and other parts of Saskatchewan, this week will resurface the wounding pain of last April 6. The collision site is just 65 kilometres from here, its memorial crosses sprouting out of the snow.

The court has received 75 victim impact statements, 65 of which will be read aloud to the court by family. Together they will be a searing tally of the pain and suffering, not only for those who lost loved ones, but also for the 13 surviving players still trying to recover, some from debilitating injuries.

Chris Joseph, whose son Jaxon was killed, said the sentencing may be even more difficult than his son's funeral, for all the memories which will rush to the surface again.

But at least there will be no trial — no battle — to live through.

The truck driver's lawyer, Mark Brayford, said Sidhu told him, "I  cannot make things better and I certainly don't want to make things worse," by having a trial.

The hearing is set to run for three to five days this week, and when it ends, the judge still could reserve her decision.

- Susan Ormiston

  • WATCH: Susan Ormiston's story about the opening day of the Humboldt bus crash sentencing hearing, tonight on The National on CBC Television and streamed online

In case you missed it, here is Susan Ormiston's story from last night's The National about why Jaskirat Singh Sidhu's sentencing hearing is tricky from a legal standpoint:

Sentencing begins in Humboldt

4 years ago
Duration 5:48
The sentencing hearing will start Monday in Humboldt, Sask., for Jaskirat Singh Sidhu the driver of a semi-truck that crashed into the Humboldt Broncos bus last April killing 16 people. Sidhu has pleaded guilty and the court will hear victim impact statements and other arguments for a judge to determine a sentence.

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Sleep and teens

The lack of sleep amongst Canadian adolescents has become an epidemic, reporter Duncan McCue writes, and it has health experts worried.

As a parent, I confess I was horrified — but not surprised — to hear how little sleep some teens at Smiths Falls District Collegiate are surviving on.

"I often get kind of shaky, and it makes talking kind of hard sometimes because I get nauseous," one girl told me.

She sometimes gets only three to four hours sleep per night.

"The past few years my grades have been going down," another girl said sadly. She averages five to six hours sleep per night, blaming "the tossing and the turning, the thoughts and everything."

The recommended amount of sleep for 13- to 18-year-olds is eight to 10 hours per night, according to the Canadian Paediatric Society.

But having a good night's sleep is a dream for a lot of teenagers.

It’s recommended that 13- to 18-year-olds get eight to 10 hours of sleep per night, according to the Canadian Paediatric Society. Studies suggest more than half of Canadian teens get much less than that. (Duncan McCue/CBC)

Lack of sleep amongst Canadian adolescents is "epidemic," according to Indra Narang, director of sleep medicine at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children.

And she's warning there will be long-term health consequences.

"In 20 years time, we're going to see a whole generation of adults who are functioning sub-optimally," Narang says.

It was eye-opening to hear teens at SFDC so candidly discuss sleeplessness. Veronica Horsey, chair of the SFDC school council, says it's time we start listening.

"Unfortunately, most adults don't even understand how sleep deprived we are," Horsey says. "Can we just look at the bigger picture on how to help our teenagers get more rest?"

- Duncan McCue


The Moment

What Canadians do in a traffic jam.


Quote of the moment

"Michael always turned the other cheek, and we have always turned the other cheek when people have gone after members of our family — that is the Jackson way. But we can't just stand by while this public lynching goes on .... Michael is not here to defend himself, otherwise these allegations would not have been made."

- Michael Jackson's family express their outrage over Leaving Neverland, a new HBO documentary that raises new allegations of child sex abuse against the late singer.

Michael Jackson sings and struts during the opening performance of his 13-city U.S. tour in Kansas City, Mo., on Feb. 24, 1988. (Cliff Schiappa/Associated Press)

What The National is reading

  • U.S. and Taliban agree to framework peace deal, envoy says (NY Times)
  • Havana hit by rare tornado, at least 3 dead (CBC)
  • Denmark erects fence to keep out German wild boars (Guardian)
  • Hundreds of popular cars 'at risk of keyless theft' (BBC)
  • Doug Ford met Jordan Peterson, appointment calendar reveals (CBC)
  • Painting stolen from Moscow museum as visitors watch (Deutsche Welle)
  • Foulards rouges march against gilets jaunes in Paris (Quartz)
  • Toddler lost in woods 'hung out with bear' for two days (Sky News)

Today in history

Jan. 28, 1973: Americans react to 1973 Vietnam ceasefire

America's combat role in Vietnam was coming to an end after President Richard Nixon signed the Paris Peace Accords. But the war was far from over. And the years of fighting and the divisions it caused continued reverberate in the United States. CBC Weekend reporters fan out to find out how a Superpower deals with defeat. "It's hard to feel specific gratitude," for the ceasefire, explains Daniel Ellsberg, the man behind the leaked Pentagon Papers. "I don't think anything that Nixon and Kissinger do in their lives will make up for what they did to Indochina in the last four years."

Americans react to 1973 Vietnam ceasefire

50 years ago
Duration 20:08
CBC Weekend talks to three well-known critics of the Vietnam war, and citizens, about the 1973 signing of the Paris Peace Accord. Joe Schlesinger reports by telephone on events in Saigon since the ceasefire came into effect.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jonathon Gatehouse

CBC Investigative Journalist

Jonathon Gatehouse has covered news and politics at home and abroad, reporting from dozens of countries. He has also written extensively about sports, covering seven Olympic Games and authoring a best-selling book on the business of pro-hockey. He works for the national investigative unit in Toronto.

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