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Saturday, February 21, 2009

Afghanistan: No Longer a Forgotten War


February 20, 2009

by Faiz Shakir, Amanda Terkel, Satyam Khanna, Matt Corley, Benjamin Armbruster, Ali Frick, and Ryan Powers


No Longer A Forgotten War

For far too long, the war in Afghanistan has been dubbed "the forgotten war." After U.S. forces ousted the Taliban in 2001, the Bush administration quickly shifted critical resources to the less critical war in Iraq. The Pentagon repeatedly begged President Bush for additional troops for Afghanistan, which never seemed to materialize. The Center for American Progress's Lawrence Korb and Caroline Wadhams warned that this "forgotten front" could become "a terrorist haven for Al Qaeda and affiliated terrorist networks." In the meantime, security around the region dramatically deteriorated, heroin production spiked, and government corruption ran rampant. As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen has said of the current situation, "In Afghanistan, we do what we can. In Iraq, we do what we must." In the past year, attention has shifted back to Afghanistan as coalition troop deaths there began surpassing those in Iraq. On Tuesday, President Obama announced that had approved the deployment of 17,000 U.S. soldiers to be sent to Afghanistan. This move is a fulfillment of a campaign promise made by Obama and marks the beginning of the drawdown in Iraq, where these troops were originally headed. "This increase is necessary to stabilize a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, which has not received the strategic attention, direction and resources it urgently requires," explained Obama. To put together a comprehensive strategy to accompany this troop increase, Obama has authorized a strategic review -- led by former CIA official Bruce Riedel, who was a member of the CAP's 2008 working group on Pakistan -- of U.S. policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

CHANGING THE DYNAMICS: There are already 38,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, compared to 146,000 in Iraq. To meet Obama's request, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has ordered the deployment of 8,000 Marines -- who are expected to arrive by late spring -- and a 4,000-strong Army brigade that will follow in the summer. Another 5,000 support troops will be sent at a "later date." Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) welcomed Obama's announcement this week; Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) said that more troops were long overdue, but added that "the president must spell out for the American people what he believes victory in Afghanistan will look like and articulate a coherent strategy for achieving it." It's important to keep in mind the mission in Afghanistan. As Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) recently wrote in the Washington Post, "The United States is not in Afghanistan to make it our 51st state -- but to make sure it does not become an al-Qaeda narco-state and terrorist beachhead capable of destabilizing neighboring Pakistan." Indeed, the bulk of these new troops will be going to southern Afghanistan, where the poppy trade has exploded under the Taliban, which uses the profits to fund its forces. "What this [additional troop deployment] allows us to do is change the dynamics of the security situation, predominantly in southern Afghanistan, where we are at best stalemated," said commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan Gen. David McKiernan.

COMPREHENSIVE APPROACH: The deployment of these additional troops is part of Obama's commitment to make Afghanistan "the center of our global counterinsurgency campaign." Part of this strategy requires building, training, and equipping the Afghan National Army. The new troops authorized by Obama will have a "dual mission" to "help double the size of the Afghan Army to 134,000 by the end of 2011 and provide security in Afghan communities, which increasingly are falling under Taliban control." Accompanying Obama's troop surge should be a corresponding civilian surge; McKiernan has already "pressed for more help from civilian agencies, both within the U.S. government and from other countries." As the Center for American Progress has written, actions in Afghanistan also have an impact on Pakistan, a country with nuclear weapons and a far larger population. Obama has recognized this fact and appointed Richard Holbrooke to be the Special Envoy to both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair has acknowledged that "no improvement in Afghanistan is possible without Pakistan taking control of its border areas and improving governance." This week, the Pakistani government made a concession to local Taliban leaders and agreed to enforce strict religious law in the Swat Valley, a resort near the Afghan border that was once known as the "Switzerland of Pakistan." After being ousted from Afghanistan in 2001, the Taliban has rebuilt strength in Pakistan; this recent Swat deal is similar to the ones struck in 2004, 2006, 2008, which ended up creating greater safe havens. Additionally, U.S. missile strikes on suspected al Qaeda hideouts in Pakistan have been extraordinarily effective in "tracking and killing high-value terrorist suspects," but they have "not helped to prevent the spread of jihadist sympathies in the tribal regions and beyond, nor has it slowed the stream of militants and material into Afghanistan," national security analyst Micah Zenko notes. "In fact, according to Pakistani intelligence reports, refugees from Afghanistan have flocked to the Taliban by the hundreds to avenge the drones' killings of innocent civilians."

CHALLENGES AHEAD: Afghanistan requires a sustained commitment from the international community. One senior U.S. commander has warned that "it's going to get worse before it gets better." McKiernan has stated that even with the additional forces, "2009 is going to be a tough year." A majority of the American public currently believes the situation is going "badly" in Afghanistan and support Obama's deployment of additional troops as "unfortunate but necessary." Major impediments to progress include increasing insurgent violence, corruption and the illegal economy, and a lack of coordination within U.S. government and with international allies. According to the United Nations, 2,118 civilians died in fighting in Afghanistan last year, "a 40% hike as the war grows ever more bloody." The Taliban greeted Holbrooke's arrival in Kabul last week "by launching an audacious terror attack on three government buildings in the capital, leaving 26 people dead." Government corruption is now so bad in Afghanistan that many women say they would prefer living under the Taliban. Delivering a threat assessment on Feb. 12, Blair concurred with this view, stating that corruption in Kabul and throughout the country had bolstered support for the Taliban and warlords. Obama avoided asking Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper for increased troop support while he was in Ottawa this week, and convincing other countries may be tough. In the past, Obama has pressed NATO allies to step up their commitments and not let the U.S. and U.K. do all the "dirty work."


ETHICS -- NOW ISSA CARES ABOUT TAKING EXTRA MEASURES TO PRESERVE WHITE HOUSE E-MAILS: In a letter to White House Counsel Gregory Craig yesterday, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), the ranking Republican on the House Oversight Committee, "called on President Obama to put in place a system that ensures all White House emails be preserved even if official business was done through private e- mail accounts." "The use of personal e-mail accounts, such as Gmail, to conduct official business raises the prospect that presidential records will not be captured by the White House e-mail archiving system," wrote Issa, referring to how the Obama administration briefly used "Gmail accounts after Obama was sworn in last month, as they waited for the official White House e-mail accounts to become active." But Issa's newfound interest in the use of outside e-mail accounts at the White House is ironic, considering his dismissal of such concerns when the Bush administration abused RNC e-mail accounts. "Are we simply going on a fishing expedition at $40,000 to $50,000 a month?" asked Issa at an oversight hearing looking into the use of RNC e-mails. "Do any of you know of a single document -- because this committee doesn't -- that should've been in the archives but in fact was done at the RNC?" In 2007, the House Oversight Committee discovered that at least 88 Bush White House officials, including former adviser Karl Rove and former chief of staff Andrew Card, had RNC e-mail accounts. Additionally, the RNC had preserved no e-mails from 51 officials and had major gaps in the e-mail records of the 37 White House officials for whom the RNC did preserve e-mails.

HEALTH CARE -- KENNEDY-LED 'WORKHORSE GROUP' NEARS CONSENSUS ON INDIVIDUAL MANDATES: Led by Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA), a diverse group of senators, lobbyists for health insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, small businesses, and doctors have been in quiet negotiations on a prospective universal health care plan since last fall. Although "not all industry groups are in complete agreement," they are "embracing the idea that comprehensive health care legislation should include a requirement that every American carry insurance." Opponents to such a "mandate" worry that the "government would end up forcing people" to buy coverage that they didn't want or need. In reality, however, mandates would serve to lower health care costs for everyone. The New Republic's Jonathan Cohn explained that "if government prohibits insurers from excluding people with pre-existing conditions -- a step that's essential to making insurance available to all -- people could then game the system by waiting to buy insurance until after they became sick." Adding a mandate protects against such behavior while ensuring that individuals have access to preventative care -- a key component to reducing health care costs. The "workhorse group" is reportedly considering a legal penalty to enforce the mandate on the condition that all available health insurance packages are "meaningful and affordable."

HUMAN RIGHTS -- REVERSING BUSH POSITION, U.S. NOW SUPPORTS U.N. MEASURE CONDEMNING DISCRIMINATION BASED ON SEXUAL ORIENTATION: In December, the United States joined China, Russia, the Vatican, and members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference in refusing to support an unprecedented U.N. declaration calling for a worldwide decriminalization of homosexuality. While the declaration "to ensure that sexual orientation or gender identity may under no circumstances be the basis for criminal penalties, in particular executions, arrests, or detention" was signed by 66 countries, the Bush administration "couched its objection to the measure in legal technicalities." At the time, human rights advocates slammed Bush for "trying to come up with Christmas presents for the religious right so it will be remembered." But yesterday, continuing the Obama administration's rejection of Bush-era policies and attitudes, the U.S. offered support for a proposal to condemn "all forms of discrimination and all other human rights violations based on sexual orientation" at the U.N.'s "Durban Review Conference" on racism and xenophobia in Geneva. While the measure failed because of resistance from non-western countries, U.N. Dispatch's Mark Leon Goldberg noted that "it's relieving to see that the United States is now back on the side of the enlightened on this issue of basic human rights."


Writing in Time Magazine, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) lays out "the case for a truth commission." "People would be invited to come forward and share their knowledge and experiences, not for purposes of constructing criminal indictments but to assemble the facts," he writes. "If needed, such a process could involve subpoena powers and even the authority to obtain immunity from prosecution in order to get to the whole truth."

"I'm excited because this president is taking urban America out of the desert it's been in for eight years," said Adolfo Carrion, Jr., the new head of the White House Office of Urban Affairs. Derek Douglas, formerly of the Center for American Progress, is headed to the new office as well.

For the budget he will present next week, President Obama "has banned four accounting gimmicks that President George W. Bush used to make deficit projections look smaller." The move away from budget gimmicks, one of which used to be failing to note the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, will create "a budget that is $2.7 trillion deeper in the red over the next decade than it would otherwise appear."

"Demand at food banks across the country increased by 30 percent in 2008 from the previous year," according to a survey by Feeding America. Even food pantries in upscale communities are seeing an uptick in demand. "These are people who never really had to ask for help before," said Brenda Beavers of the Salvation Army.

The number of U.S. workers drawing unemployment benefits "jumped to a record high of nearly 5 million," the Labor Department reported yesterday. It's the highest number since 1967 when the government began keeping such records.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said it’s time to "take a whack" at climate change and that "he plans to push for Senate action on global warming by the end of summer." Reid said "the Senate will take up energy legislation in a couple of weeks ‘and then later this year, hopefully late this summer do the global warming part of it.'"

The IAEA has "found that Iran recently understated by a third how much uranium it has enriched" and it has enough low enriched uranium that --- with added purification -- is sufficient for one atom bomb. But the IAEA also found that Iran is "putting the brakes on key aspects" of its program, which is seen "as a conciliatory gesture in advance of any diplomatic overtures by the Obama administration."

A classified Pentagon assessment has concluded that "there is a significant risk the U.S. military may not be able to respond quickly and fully to new crises" because of strain from "repeated war tours, persistent terrorist threats and instability around the globe." This is the third year in a row that the risk level has been set at "significant."

And finally: Obama's director of the Office of Management and Budget, Peter Orszag, had a rough first weekend of work. Finding a large marble fireplace stacked with wood in his office on a chilly January day, Orszag lit a cozy fire. "The only problem: The Secret Service had capped the building's chimneys. Smoke alarms started going off upstairs, and the building was evacuated." Orszag has suffered the mocking of the White House ever since. "Rahm [Emanuel] asked me to send smoke signals to the Hill," Orszag told Politico's Ben Smith.


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