US and NATO Deaths in Afganistan Outnumber Iraq

June 30, 2008


Militants killed more U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan in June than in Iraq for the second straight month, a grim milestone capping a run of headline-grabbing insurgent attacks that analysts say underscore the Taliban’s growing strength.

The fundamentalist militia in June staged a sophisticated jailbreak that freed 886 prisoners, then briefly infiltrated a strategic valley outside Kandahar. Last week, a Pentagon report forecast the Taliban would maintain or increase its pace of attacks, which are already up 40 percent this year from 2007 where U.S. troops operate along the Pakistan border.

Some observers say the insurgency has gained dangerous momentum. And while June also saw the international community meet in Paris to pledge $21 billion in aid, an Afghanistan expert at New York University warns that there is still no strategy to turn that commitment into success.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has noted that more international troops died in Afghanistan than in Iraq in May, the first time that had happened. While that trend – now two months old – is in part due to falling violence in Iraq, it also reflects rising violence in Afghanistan.

At least 45 international troops – including at least 27 U.S. forces and 13 British – died in Afghanistan in June, the deadliest month since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion to oust the Taliban, according to an Associated Press count.

In Iraq, at least 31 international soldiers died in June: 29 U.S. troops and one each from the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Azerbaijan. There are 144,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and 4,000 British forces in additional to small contingents from several other nations.

The 40-nation international coalition is much broader in Afghanistan, where only about half of the 65,000 international troops are American.

That record number of international troops means that more soldiers are exposed to danger than ever before. But Taliban attacks are becoming increasingly complex, and in June, increasingly deadly.

A gun and bomb attack last week in Ghazni province blasted a U.S. Humvee into smoldering ruins, killing three U.S. soldiers and an Afghan interpreter. It was the fourth attack of the month against troops that killed four people. No single attack had killed more than three international troops since August 2007.

“I think possibly we’ve reached a turning point,” said Mustafa Alani, the director of security and terrorism studies at the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center. “Insurgents now are more active, more organized, and the political environment, whether in Pakistan or Afghanistan, favors insurgent activities.”

U.S. commanders have blamed Pakistani efforts to negotiate peace deals for the spike in cross-border attacks, though an initial deal with militants has begun to fray and security forces recently launched a limited crackdown in the semiautonomous tribal belt where the Taliban and al-Qaida operate with increasing freedom.

For a moment in mid-June, Afghanistan’s future shimmered brightly. World leaders gathered in Paris to pledge more than $21 billion in aid, and Afghan officials unveiled a development strategy that envisions peace by 2020.

But the very next day, the massive and flawlessly executed assault on the prison in Kandahar – the Taliban’s spiritual home – drew grudging respect even from Western officials.

U.S. Ambassador William Wood said violence is up because Taliban fighters are increasingly using terrorist tactics that cause higher tolls, but that there’s no indication fighters can hold territory. He said June had “some very good news and a couple cases of bad news.”

“The very good news was Paris. There were more nations represented, contributing more than ever before,” Wood told the AP.

The scramble after the jailbreak to push the Taliban back from the nearby Arghandab valley was the other big plus, Wood said. The Afghan army sent more than 1,000 troops to Kandahar in two days.

“Although Arghandab got major press for being a Taliban attack, the real news in Arghandab was that the Afghans themselves led the counterattack, deployed very rapidly and chased the Taliban away,” Wood said.

The worst news, Wood said, was the prison break, and the possible involvement of al-Qaida.

“The Taliban is not known for that level of complex operation, and others who have bases in the tribal areas are,” he said.

Alani agreed: “The old Taliban could not do such an operation, so we are talking about a new Taliban, possibly al-Qaida giving them the experience to carry out this operation.”

Days after the prison attack, an angry President Hamid Karzai threatened to send Afghan troops after Taliban leaders in Pakistan, marking a new low in Afghan-Pakistan relations.

Contributing to the increased death toll is an increase in sophistication of attacks. U.S. Maj. Gen. Jeffrey J. Schloesser, the top commander of U.S. forces here, said this month that militant attacks are becoming more complex – such as gunfire from multiple angles plus a roadside bomb. Insurgents are using more explosives, he said.

Mark Laity, the top NATO spokesman in Afghanistan, said troops are taking the fight to insurgents in remote areas and putting themselves in harm’s way. One or two events can disproportionally affect the monthly death toll, he said.

“Sometimes it is just circumstance,” Laity said. “For instance you can hit an IED and walk away or not, and what has happened this month is that there’s been one or two instances that there’s been multiple deaths.”

The AP count found that some 580 people died in insurgent violence in June, including around 440 militants, 34 civilians and 44 Afghan security forces. More than 2,100 people have died in violence this year, according to the AP count, which is based on figures from Afghan, U.S. and NATO officials.

Barnett Rubin, an expert on Afghanistan at NYU, said the Paris conference shows a strong international commitment to Afghanistan, but he said there is still no strategy for longterm success.

“Let’s focus on the essentials: creating a secure environment for Afghanistan and Pakistan to address their problems and for the international community to eliminate al-Qaida’s safe haven,” Rubin said. “We haven’t been getting there, and we are not getting closer, pledges or no pledges.”

Written by Jason Straziuso

iNPLACENEWS

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Advertisements

Abu Ghraib Detainees Sue Contractors Over Torture

June 30, 2008


Former detainees of the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq are suing U.S. contractors. The first complaint was filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Seattle, Washington. Others are being filed in Detroit, Michigan; Columbus, Ohio; and Greenbelt, Maryland.

According to the court papers, it is alleged that innocent people who were arrested and taken to the prison were subjected to forced nudity, electrical shocks, mock executions and other inhumane treatment by employees of defense contractors CACI International and L-3 Communications, formerly Titan Corporation.

The plaintiffs are represented by law firms in Philadelphia and Detroit and by the Center for Constitutional Rights.

iNPLACENEWS


Screen Actors Guild President Urges No Strike

June 30, 2008

The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers has taken out an advertisement in trade publications calling a strike “harmful and unnecessary.” Citing $2.8 billion in lost wages, the ad says “We’ve completed four equitable and forward-thinking labor agreements. Let’s get the fifth done.”

The ad is scheduled to run in Monday’s editions of Variety and Hollywood Reporter.

“The industry is shutting down because SAG’s Hollywood leadership insisted on 11th-hour negotiations and dragging these talks into July so they can continue attacking AFTRA,” AMPTP spokesman Jesse Hiestand said.

The contract runs out at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday, and so anxiety has been growing in Hollywood. There is worry that actors might walk off the job or studios could lock out performers having just returned from a Writers Guild of America strike that devastated production from November through February.

SAG leaders disagree with and have been fighting a deal reached between producers and another actors union, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. Vote results among that union’s 70,000 members are due July 8. AFTRA and the 120,000-member SAG have 44,000 members in common. SAG leaders are urging its members in AFTRA to vote against the deal, saying they can strike a better bargain with producers if the contract is defeated.

SAG has said it is willing to continue talks with producers after its own contract expires.

iNPLACENEWS


Bush Freezes Cuts in Medical Fees

June 30, 2008

The Bush administration said Monday it is freezing a scheduled 10 percent fee cut for doctors who treat Medicare patients, giving Congress time to act to prevent the cuts when lawmakers return from a July 4 recess.

Physicians have been running ads hinting that as a result of the cuts, patients may find doctors less willing to treat them. The administration’s delay in implementing the cuts, which had been scheduled to go into effect Tuesday, spares lawmakers from having to use the recess to explain to seniors why they didn’t do the job before leaving town.

Kevin Schweers, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, said Monday the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services will hold doctors’ Medicare claims for services delivered on or after July 1. Claims for services received on before June 30 will be processed as usual, he said.

Congress, not willing to face millions of angry seniors at the polls in November, will almost certainly act quickly when it returns to Washington the week of July 7 to prevent the cuts in payments for some 600,000 doctors who treat Medicare patients. The cuts were scheduled because of a formula that requires fee cuts when spending exceeds established goals.

HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt had promised Friday that his agency “will take all steps available to the department under the law to minimize the impact on providers and beneficiaries.” On Monday, the department used its administrative tools to delay implementing the scheduled 10.6 percent cuts.

“By holding claims for health care services that are delivered on or after July 1, CMS will not be making any payments on the 10.6 percent reduction until July 15 at the earliest,” Schweers said.

Almost every year, Congress finds a way to block such cuts. But last week the Senate fell just one vote short of the 60 needed to proceed to legislation that would have stopped the cut.

In a particularly vitriolic exchange, Democrats and Republicans blamed each other for what Dr. Nancy H. Nielsen, president of the American Medical Association, said has put the country “at the brink of a Medicare meltdown.”

“Seniors need continued access to the doctors they trust. It’s urgent that Congress make that happen,” the AMA said in ads taken out in Capitol Hill newspapers read by members of Congress and their aides.

Doctors have complained for years that Medicare payments have failed to cover rising costs.

This year majority Democrats homed in on cutting the Medicare Advantage program, which is an ideological issue for both parties. The Bush administration and Republicans like Medicare Advantage because it lets the elderly and disabled choose to get their health benefits through private insurers rather than through traditional Medicare. Democrats argued that government payments to the insurers are too generous.

The White House warned that President Bush would be urged to veto a bill that contained cuts to Medicare Advantage.

That didn’t stop the House last Tuesday from approving the legislation 355-59, well above the margin needed to override a veto. Every Democrat supported it, and Republicans, bucking their president, voted 129-59 for it.

Originally found @ AssociatedPress.com

iNPLACENEWS

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


Getting Your Plane Shot Down Does Not Make You Qualified

June 29, 2008

Gen. Wesley Clark, acting as a surrogate for Barack Obama’s campaign, invoked John McCain’s military service against him in one of the more personal attacks on the Republican presidential nominee this election cycle.

Clark said that McCain lacked the executive experience necessary to be president, calling him “untested and untried” on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” And in saying so, he took a few swipes at McCain’s military service.

“He has been a voice on the Senate Armed Services Committee. And he has traveled all over the world. But he hasn’t held executive responsibility. That large squadron in the Navy that he commanded — that wasn’t a wartime squadron,” Clark said.

“I don’t think getting in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to become president.”

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), also on CBS, was equally uncharitable towards Obama’s record on foreign policy as he continued to distance himself from his former party.

“Sen. Obama, unfortunately, like a lot of the Democratic leadership, continues to take a position that we ought to withdraw … even though the new policy is working,” said Lieberman. “If we had done what Sen. Obama asked us to do for the last couple of years, today Iran and Al Qaeda would be in control of Iraq. It would be a terrible defeat for us and our allies in the Middle East and throughout the world.”

Meanwhile, the opposition narratives for the fall election campaign appeared to be in full force on ABC’s “This Week,” with Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) calling McCain a flip-flopper, while Republican Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty accused Obama of not working in a bipartisan fashion.

Emanuel attacked McCain for changing his position on offshore oil drilling, President Bush’s tax cuts and his relationship with the evangelical community.

Quipped Emanuel: “If flip-flop was an Olympic sport, John McCain would be the first to win a gold medal.”

But Pawlenty cited McCain’s record on immigration and his support of increasing U.S. troop presence in Iraq as ample evidence that he bucks his party on account of principle — and then challenged Emanuel to name one piece of legislation where Obama has worked across party lines.

“The question really remains, when has Barack Obama stood up and taken on his party
on anything of national significance?” Pawlenty asked. “It’s not leadership to jump in front of a parade. And I think Barack Obama’s book ‘The Audacity of Hope’ perhaps should be retitled ‘The Audacity of Hypocrisy.’”

VP watch

A pair of prospective running mates for Obama and McCain downplayed their interest in serving on the presidential tickets on “Fox News Sunday” — and one even said he wasn’t interested in an immediate Cabinet appointment.

Gov. Ed Rendell (D-Pa.), said he was committed to finishing out his four-year term as governor before accepting any Cabinet position within a potential Obama administration.

“In 2011, it’s my intention to walk out the door of the [Pennsylvania] capitol … in January of 2011. I know that disappoints some people in the capitol, but that’s my intention,” Rendell said. “And if there was a position open that I was interested in, like energy or transportation, I’d be honored to serve in an Obama administration, but not at the beginning, not until my time is finished.”

Rendell, one of Sen. Clinton’s leading surrogates during the Democratic primaries, said that President Clinton was “disappointed” that his wife came up short in the Democratic primary, but “is going to do every single thing that Barack Obama asks him to do … and make a great case for Sen. Obama as our next president.”

Meanwhile, former Ohio Rep. Rob Portman also disavowed interest in serving as McCain’s running mate, saying he preferred to remain with his family in Ohio instead of returning to Washington, where he most recently served as director of the Office of Management and Budget.

“I don’t expect to be asked, honestly,” said Portman. “I’m also, as you know, Chris, home after 15 years of commuting when I was in Congress and in the administration, and I’ve got three teenagers. It’s time to be home. I love being home.”

Portman, for his part, reiterated McCain’s unequivocal support for NAFTA despite the fact that the free trade agreement is viewed skeptically in the Rust Belt, including the electorally critical states of Ohio and Pennsylvania.

“It’s created an enormous number of jobs, including to Canada, which is our biggest trading partner,” said Portman. “And when that message gets out there, it makes it look a little silly that you have someone going around the state of Pennsylvania and Ohio blaming NAFTA for anything from high energy prices to the common cold. “

Third party

Both third-party presidential candidates appeared on the Sunday talk show circuit, with each offering an ample helping of criticism towards the major-party nominees.

Ralph Nader, who said Obama was “talking white” to appeal to voters earlier in the week, continued to attack the Democratic nominee on ABC’s “This Week,” accusing him of being too cozy with an assortment of corporate interests.

“Look at the positions he’s taken on that corporate America is very congenial to. If you want to cover everybody on health insurance … go to single payer. He’s opposed to single payer,” said Nader.

Meanwhile, former Republican Georgia Rep. Bob Barr, the Libertarian Party’s nominee, had harsh words for both McCain and his former party.

“What’s wrong with John McCain is symptomatic of what’s wrong with the Republican party in these first years of the 21st century. They talk one thing but do something different and that’s become very obvious to the American people,” Barr said on Fox.

Barr said he is the only candidate offering the combination of a crackdown on excessive government spending along with concern for civil liberties.

But he had to distance himself from past congressional votes in support of the Patriot Act and for legislation authorizing the war in Iraq — positions anathema to much of the Libertarian Party base.

“I certainly was wrong, along with a lot of others in Congress, and now realize that the vote in support of military operations in Iraq was not what the administration intended. They intended to occupy the country even though they didn’t tell us or the American people that at the time,” said Barr.

The governator

And a Sunday show wrapup wouldn’t be complete without mention of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s appearance on “Meet the Press,” where he advocated for McCain’s candidacy but acknowledged their difference on offshore drilling, a proposal that Schwarzenegger opposes.

“I’m 100 percent behind him. That we don’t agree on everything, that’s clear; nor do I with my wife. I mean, it doesn’t mean that we should split, it just means that we don’t agree on certain things.”
He also announced his opposition to a statewide referendum that would amend the state’s constitution to ban gay marriage, while not sounding too opposed to the California Supreme Court’s recent controversial ruling that legalized same-sex marriage in the state.

“I think it’s good that California is leading in this way,” said Schwarzenegger. “I personally believe that marriage should be between a man and a woman. But at the same time I think that my belief, I don’t want to force on anyone else, so I think we should stay with the decision of the Supreme Court and move forward.”

Originally found @ Politico.com

iNPLACENEWS


30 Thousand Troops Going to Iraq

June 28, 2008

The Pentagon is preparing to order approximately 30,000 troops to Iraq early next year in a move that would allow the U.S. to maintain 15 combat brigades in the country through 2009, according to sources via the Associated Press. This deployments would replace troops currently there. This could all change quickly though is Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, decides in the fall to further reduce troop levels in Iraq.

Several officials familiar with the deployments spoke on condition of anonymity because the orders have not yet been made public.

According to the officials, three active-duty Army brigade combat teams, one Army National Guard brigade and two Marine regimental combat teams are being notified that they are being sent to Iraq in early 2009. Officials would not release the specific units involved because the soldiers and Marines and their families have not all been told except the Army National Guard unit who were told last October that they should be prepared to deploy to Iraq early in 2009. They are the 56th Brigade Combat Team, 28th Infantry Division from the Pennsylvania National Guard which is a large brigade with heavily armored Stryker vehicles.

Overall, there are about 146,000 forces in Iraq, and that number is expected to dip to about 142,000 by mid-July when that last unit is all out. That total is at least 7,000 more than the number of troops in Iraq before the buildup began early last year.

Petraeus told Congress in May that he is likely to recommend further troop reductions in Iraq, but he did not provide any details. If he decides in the Fall that fewer brigades will be needed in Iraq during the next year, there is the chance that brigades could simply be directed to the war in Afghanistan instead.

There is a broad consensus that more troops are needed in Afghanistan, to both train the security forces and fight the insurgents. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and President Bush, earlier this year, told NATO allies that they would increase troop levels in Afghanistan in 2009 in response to the growing violence.

Overall, as seems to be the plan of the current administration and its potential Republican successor, the war is not ending, the occupation is not ceasing, and troops are not coming home.

iNPLACENEWS


Amsterdam’s Weed Shops Face New Challenge

June 28, 2008


This city’s famed marijuana bars have weathered many challenges over the years and are still smoking. But now they face an unwelcome blast of fresh air: On July 1, the Netherlands will be one of the last European countries to ban smoking in bars and restaurants in compliance with EU law.

The Health Ministry says the ban will apply to cafes that sell marijuana, known as coffee shops. But this being Holland, which for centuries has experimented with social liberalism, there’s a loophole: The ban covers tobacco but not marijuana, which is technically illegal anyway.

But that still leaves coffee shops and their customers in a bind. Dutch and other European marijuana users traditionally smoke pot in fat, cone-shaped joints mixed with tobacco.

“It’s the world upside down: In other countries they look for the marijuana in the cigarette. Here they look for the cigarette in the marijuana,” said Jason den Enting, manager of coffee shop Dampkring.

Shops are scrambling to adapt. One alternative is “vaporizer” machines, which incinerate weed smokelessly. Another is to replace tobacco with herbs like coltsfoot, a common plant that looks like a dandelion and that smokers describe as tasting a bit like oregano.

But most shops are just planning to increase their sales of hash brownies and pure weed – and are hoping the law isn’t enforced.

Michael Veling, owner of the 4-20 Cafe and a board member of the Cannabis Retailers’ Union, said he expected a small decline in sales as smokers are forced to separate their nicotine addiction from their marijuana habit.

But he expects the long-term effects to be minimal. “It’s absurd to say that coffee shops will go bankrupt in the second week of July. Nonsense,” he said.

Veling is instructing his staff to send tobacco smokers outside, but he doesn’t expect all coffee shops to do the same. He said some owners will ignore the ban – and will probably get away with it, at least for a while.

But “if obeying the smoking ban becomes a condition of renewing your business license, just watch how fast it will happen,” he said. “That’s the way things work.”

Chris Krikken, spokesman for the Food and Wares Authority, charged with enforcing the ban, said his agency won’t be targeting coffee shops in particular.

“For the first month we’ll just be gathering information about compliance in a wide range of hospitality businesses. Depending on what we find, we may focus more squarely on a sector that’s lagging,” he said.

But he said individual businesses caught allowing customers to smoke will be warned and definitely checked again. “Repeat offenders will face escalating fines,” he said.

Marijuana possession is illegal in the Netherlands, but smokers are not prosecuted for holding up to 5 grams. Around 750 cafes – half of them in Amsterdam – are licensed to have up to 500 grams in stock at any one time.

The Dutch “tolerance” policy recognizes that some people will smoke pot regardless of laws, so it might as well happen in an orderly way. Critics complain this encourages substance abuse.

But cannabis abuse in Holland ranks somewhere in the middle compared to other nations and is lower than in the U.S., France and England, according to statistics compiled by the United Nations’ Office on Drugs and Crime.

At the same time, the levels of THC – the main active chemical in marijuana – have soared in the past decade and are now at 16 percent in Dutch weed.

The U.S. government sounded the alarm earlier this month because THC in American marijuana has doubled to 9.6 percent since 1983, and it warned of recent scientific findings linking the drug to mental problems.

The Dutch government, currently led by a conservative coalition with a religious bent, is slowly squeezing back the number of coffee shops by not renewing licenses when shops close.

Growers are arrested, leaving coffee shop owners struggling to obtain their main product.

“The rules are being set to pester us out of business one by one, slowly but surely,” said Richard van Velthoven, manager at The Greenhouse, who said he feared being shut down for tobacco violations.

“I’ve taken the cigarette machines out, I’m putting Coltsfoot on the tables, I’ve bought extra vaporizers, the staff is watching out – what more can I do?” he said.

German tourist Lars Schmit said lamented the possible end of an era.

Without coffee shops, he said, “a little bit of Amsterdam will die.”

Originally found @ AssociatedPress.com

iNPLACENEWS

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.