Wednesday, May 11, 2011

U.S. Reassesses Afghan Strategy

The killing of Osama bin Laden has set off a reassessment of the war in Afghanistan and the broader effort to combat terrorism, with Congress, the military and the Obama administration weighing the goals, strategies, costs and underlying authority for a conflict that is now almost a decade old.

Two influential senators — John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, and Richard G. Lugar, Republican of Indiana — suggested Tuesday that it was time to rethink the Afghanistan war effort, forecasting the beginning of what promises to be a fierce debate about how quickly the United States should begin pulling troops out of the country.

“We should be working toward the smallest footprint necessary, a presence that puts Afghans in charge and presses them to step up to that task,” Mr. Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said at a hearing. “Make no mistake, it is fundamentally unsustainable to continue spending $10 billion a month on a massive military operation with no end in sight.”

Both Mr. Kerry and Mr. Lugar, the committee’s senior Republican, said they remained opposed to a precipitous withdrawal.

Still, “the broad scope of our activities suggests that we are trying to remake the economic, political and security culture of Afghanistan — but that ambitious goal is beyond our power,” Mr. Lugar said. “A reassessment of our Afghanistan policy on the basis of whether our overall geostrategic interests are being served by spending roughly $10 billion a month in that country was needed before our troops took out Bin Laden.”

Inside the Pentagon, however, officials make the case that rather than using Bin Laden’s death as a justification for withdrawal, the United States should continue the current strategy in Afghanistan to secure additional gains and to further pressure the Taliban to come to the bargaining table for negotiations on political reconciliation.

And in Congress, a debate is getting under way over the underlying authority used by two successive administrations to wage the post-Sept. 11 fight against terrorist organizations and their supporters.

The House Armed Services Committee is expected to take up a defense authorization bill on Wednesday that includes a new authorization for the government to use military force in the war on terrorism. The provision has set off an argument over whether it is a mere update — or a sweeping, open-ended expansion — of the power Congress granted to the executive branch in 2001.

The new authorization to use military force against Al Qaeda was unveiled by the committee chairman, Representative Howard P. McKeon, Republican of California. The committee is scheduled to vote Wednesday on amendments to the bill.

The provision states that Congress “affirms” that “the United States is engaged in an armed conflict with Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated forces,” and that the president is authorized to use military force — including detention without trial — of members and substantial supporters of those forces.

That language, which would codify into federal law a definition of the enemy that the Obama administration has adopted in defending against lawsuits filed by Guantánamo Bay detainees, would supplant the existing military force authorization that Congress passed overwhelmingly on Sept. 14, 2001. It instead named the enemy as the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Critics of Mr. McKeon’s provision have reacted with alarm to what they see as an effort to entrench in a federal statute unambiguous authority for the executive branch to wage war against terrorists who are deemed associates of Al Qaeda but who lack a clear tie to the Sept. 11 attacks.

In a joint letter to Congress, about two dozen groups — including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights — contended that the proposal amounted to an open-ended grant of authority to the executive branch, legitimizing an unending war from Yemen to Somalia and beyond.

“This monumental legislation — with a large-scale and practically irrevocable delegation of war power from Congress to the president — could commit the United States to a worldwide war without clear enemies, without any geographical boundaries” and “without any boundary relating to time or specific objective to be achieved,” the letter warned.

But Mr. McKeon argued in a statement that the provision did nothing more than codify the Obama administration’s interpretation of its legal authority to address the threat of Al Qaeda in light of its splintering and evolution over the past decade.

“This bill does not expand the war effort,” he said. “Instead, the legislation better aligns the old legal authorities used to detain and prosecute those intent on attacking America with the threats our country faces today.”

President Obama will soon begin considering plans for making good on his pledge to begin withdrawing American troops from Afghanistan in July. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the senior commander in Afghanistan, is expected to submit his options soon for carrying out Mr. Obama’s order.

On Tuesday, the commander of American and allied forces across the violent, contested provinces of eastern Afghanistan said that the death of Bin Laden might weaken the syndicate of insurgent groups battling the Kabul government, although it may take months to determine which might seek reconciliation and which will seek revenge.

The commander, Maj. Gen. John F. Campbell of the 101st Airborne Division, said during a video news conference to the Pentagon from his headquarters at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan that the death of Al Qaeda’s founder might splinter historic ties between Al Qaeda and indigenous insurgent leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan who helped protect it.

The insurgency is made up of a number of groups with different motivations, different goals and different relationships with Al Qaeda. The organizations may still be digesting the news of Bin Laden’s death before deciding on a course of action.

General Campbell said he had not yet seen any increase in the flow of fighters from Pakistan or attacks attributed to revenge for Bin Laden’s death.

Still, the images of Bin Laden living in comfort in a Pakistan safe house may undermine the morale of frontline insurgent fighters, General Campbell said, coming as some insurgent foot soldiers are said to be expressing frustration with their leadership’s commanding from the relative safety of Pakistan.

“I think the insurgents are going to say, ‘Hey, you know, why am I doing this?’ ” he said. “And I think there’s great potential for many of the insurgents to say, ‘Hey, I want to reintegrate.’

Yemeni forces fire on protest march in capital

Yemeni forces opened fire on a crowd of tens of thousands of protesters demonstrating on Wednesday in the capital Sanaa to unseat the president, killing at least one demonstrator and wounding scores, witnesses said.

In the industrial center Taiz, snipers killed two protesters and dozens were injured by gunfire, tear gas and bat-wielding plainclothes security men. Protesters retaliated by torching a police building and sealing off government buildings.

The bloodshed is likely to add to public rage ahead of Friday, traditionally the main day of unrest during a three-month-old revolt against President Ali Abduallah Saleh inspired by uprisings across the Arab world.

Crowds have lost patience with stalled negotiations to end Saleh's 33-year rule, and violence is surging in a country where half the population owns a gun. Wednesday's march in Sanaa saw protesters attempt to reach the cabinet building.

"This is a massacre, they are opening fire randomly," Mohammed al-Qibly, a leader of a youth protest movement in Sanaa, said on Al Jazeera television. "The scene is terrifying in every sense of the word."

A doctor at the scene told Reuters one person was killed. Witnesses said some 40 people were shot and protesters stopped to help treat the wounded, who were rushed away in private vehicles as the gunfire continued.

"Forces opened fire heavily when protesters got around 200 meters away from the cabinet, but the protesters didn't back away at first," Yemeni journalist Abdulsattar Mohammed said. "A number of injured fell and they were carried away to hospital on motorcycles when police stopped ambulances from entering."

Neighboring oil giant Saudi Arabia and the United States fear escalating violence could push impoverished Yemen, already riven by tribal and separatist conflict, into chaos that could allow al Qaeda's Yemen-based wing to operate freely.


Demonstrators have sought to shut down some of Yemen's major cities and many have called for a daily general strike.

In Taiz, security forces have shot dead six protesters in three days of clashes. Authorities were struggling unsuccessfully to break up a protest blockade on the education ministry, part of a siege of state buildings that has effectively brought Yemen's main industrial center to a halt.

"Stores are closed and the streets are completely empty of pedestrians, only protesters are around in the areas they are confronting (security forces)," resident Wajdi Abdullah said.

Protesters also brought life to a halt in the city of Ibb. "Almost all the stores are shut in Ibb except a few selling basic food items. No one is going to work -- this is unprecedented in this city," resident Ali Noaman said.

Tribesmen aligned with protesters have blockaded Yemen's main oil- and gas- producing province Maarib, causing a mounting fuel crisis. A shipping source told Reuters the government was losing around $3 million a day in blocked exports.

Traders said on Wednesday Yemen was in talks with Saudi Aramco to buy around 2 million barrels of crude oil to send to its main refinery in Aden, shut for weeks due to lack of supply.

The protesters' pressure on oil supplies has made petrol scarce and led to power cuts.

Yemen's fragile economy is struggling to stay afloat as the currency tumbles and prices of necessities soar. A third of Yemen's 23 million people suffer chronic hunger and 40 percent live on less than $2 a day.

Fuel rationing has worsened water shortages in remote areas where trucks have stopped deliveries.

Saudi Arabia, A Few Brave Women Dare Take Wheel in Defiance of Saudi Law Against Driving

Manal, a 32-year-old woman, is planning something she’s never done openly in her native Saudi Arabia: Get in her car and take to the streets, defying a ban on female drivers in the kingdom.

Manal and ten other people are organizing a campaign on Facebook and Twitter urging Saudi women with international driver’s licenses to join them starting June 17, risking their jobs and their freedom. The coordinated plan isn’t a protest, she said.

“I’m doing it because I’m frustrated, angry and mad,” Manal, who asked to be identified only by her first name, said in an interview from the eastern city of Dhahran. “It’s 2011 and we’re still discussing this insignificant right for women.”

The risk the women are willing to take underscores both their exasperation with the restrictions and the infectious nature of the changes sweeping the region. Saudi Arabia, which has the world’s biggest oil reserves, so far has avoided the mass demonstrations that have toppled the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt and threaten officials in Libya, Yemen and Syria.

“These events have taught Saudi women to join ranks and act as a team,” said Wajeeha al-Howeider, a Saudi women’s rights activist, in a telephone interview from Dhahran. “This is something they could only have learned from those revolutions.”

Male Approval

Saudi Arabia enforces the ascetic Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam. Women aren’t allowed to have a Saudi driver’s permit, even though some drive when they’re in the desert away from urban areas. They can’t travel or get an education without male approval or mix with unrelated men in public places. They aren’t permitted to vote or run as candidates in municipal elections, the only ones the kingdom allows.

The last time a group of women publicly defied the driving ban was on Nov. 6, 1990, when U.S. troops had massed in Saudi Arabia to prepare for a war that would expel Iraq from Kuwait. The Saudi women were spurred by images of female U.S. soldiers driving in the desert and stories of Kuwaiti women driving their children to safety, and they were counting on the presence of international media to ensure their story would reach the world and lessen the repercussions, according to Noura Abdullah, 55.

Abdullah was one of forty-seven drivers and passengers who stayed out for about an hour before being arrested. They were banned from travel for a year, lost their jobs for 2 1/2 years and were condemned by the powerful clergy as harlots.

Spread the Word

Now it’s “superb” that a younger generation is following in their footsteps, Abdullah said in an interview from Riyadh, the capital. She doesn’t have an international driver’s license, so she will help by spreading the word about the event with telephone calls, text messages and emails, she said.

“Their timing is perfect,” she added. “There’s momentum in Saudi Arabia now and that should help.”

King Abdullah has taken steps this year to ensure regional turmoil is confined outside his borders, pledging almost $100 billion of spending on homes, jobs and benefits. He also has promised to improve the status of women. He opened the first co- educational university in 2009; appointed the kingdom’s first female deputy minister, Nora bint Abdullah al-Fayez, the same year; and has said he will provide more access to jobs for women, who make up about 15 percent of the workforce.

A change of policy in 2008 allowed women to stay in hotels without male guardians, and an amendment to the labor law allowed women to work in all fields “suitable to their nature.”

‘Largely Symbolic’

Human Rights Watch said in January that “reforms to date have involved largely symbolic steps to improve the visibility of women.” While the United Nations ranked the kingdom in the top one-third of nations in its 2010 Human Development Report -- higher than Brazil and Russia -- its score for gender equality was much lower. On that measure, which includes assessments of reproductive health and participation in politics and the labor market, Saudi Arabia was 128th of 138 nations, below Iran and Pakistan.

The campaign Manal is helping to organize, called “I will drive starting June 17,” is the latest effort by Saudi women this year to express their desire for more rights. On April 23, a group of 15 women showed up at a registration center in the western city of Jeddah, asking to participate in the September election, the Arab News reported a day later. While they were denied entry, they were permitted to relay their demands to Abdul Aziz al-Ghamdi, the head of the district office, the Arab News said.

Facebook Fans

The protest against the driving ban has attracted almost 800 Facebook fans since it began May 6.

“We are not here to break the law or demonstrate or challenge the authorities,” the organizers said on their page. “We are here to claim one of our simplest rights.”

Sheikh Mohammed al-Nujaimi, a Saudi cleric, dismissed the campaign, saying statements he makes about religious issues that are posted on websites have received more than 24,000 page views in a day.

The plan is “against the law, and the women who drive should be punished according to the law,” al-Nujaimi said in a telephone interview. Driving causes “more harm than good” to women, because they risk mixing with men they aren’t related to, such as mechanics and gas-station attendants, he added.

“Women will also get used to leaving their homes at will,” al-Nujaimi said.

Other Support

Three telephone calls by Bloomberg News to the mobile phone of a press officer at Saudi Arabia’s Traffic Department, which enforces transit rules in the country, weren’t answered.

The campaign has received the support of some Saudi men. Ahmad al-Yacoub, 24, a Dhahran-based businessman, said he’s joined the effort because “these ladies are not fighting with religion or the government.”

“They are asking for a simple right that they want to practice freely without being harassed or questioned,” al- Yacoub said.

Ghada Abdul-Latif, a 31-year-old rights activist, said she will support the effort by filming it and posting it online; she won’t drive for fear of being jailed before her wedding in June.

“It is a courageous campaign,” said Hatoon al-Fassi, a Saudi historian. “It feels so weird to consider such a human right a courageous movement. But it is in a country such as Saudi Arabia, which is trying to live against the current and life and history.”

President Obama at the Border


President Obama went to the border in El Paso on Tuesday and delivered a speech on immigration reform. He didn’t present a bill or issue any executive orders or set deadlines for action. Aides say his goal was to “create a pathway” and “a sense of urgency” to “move forward.” That is a start but not nearly enough.

The speech was right on its merits. The immigration system is a shambles. Millions live here outside the law. Visa policies are too restrictive, cruelly separating families and driving away talented university graduates to other countries. As Mr. Obama dryly noted, “We train them to create jobs for our competition.”

He said our current laws stifle opportunity for exactly the people for whom this economy needs to recover: entrepreneurs, students and low-wage workers. Illegality feeds “a massive underground economy that exploits a cheap source of labor,” Mr. Obama said. This isn’t fair to American workers, or to the undocumented — “the overwhelming majority” of whom, he said, “are just trying to earn a living and provide for their families.”

Mr. Obama was also right when he said that the country has heard “a lot of blame and a lot of politics and a lot of ugly rhetoric around immigration.” After listing the many ways his administration has “gone above and beyond” what Republicans had demanded as their price for reform — flooding the border with troops and technology to seal it tighter than ever — he noted that the Republicans were still not satisfied. “Maybe they’ll need a moat,” he joked. “Maybe they’ll want alligators in the moat.”

Mr. Obama’s description of the problem was accurate, and his prescription the right one: a “good-faith effort” by both parties to pass comprehensive measures that combine border security with assimilation, not mass expulsion, for illegal immigrants who qualify.

To move things forward, Mr. Obama will have to do a lot more. He needs to outline legislation, push Congressional leaders — including those in his own party — to back it and make the case repeatedly to Americans.

The president also needs to get his own policies in order. For all his talk of supporting the hopes of the undocumented, his administration has been doubling down on the failed strategy of mass expulsion. It is pressing state and local police to join in an ill-conceived program called Secure Communities, which sends arrested people’s fingerprints through federal immigration databases, turning all local officers and jails into arms of the Department of Homeland Security.

Many lawmakers and police agencies say it erodes public safety by making immigrants, especially victims of domestic violence, afraid to report crimes. They worry about giving rogue officers a convenient tool for racial profiling. And they feel betrayed because what the administration once billed as a transparent, voluntary program aimed only at dangerous convicted criminals turns out to be none of those things. The Homeland Security Department’s own data show that more than half of those deported under the program have no criminal records or committed only minor crimes.

Mr. Obama and the homeland security secretary, Janet Napolitano, should heed the growing calls by lawmakers in California, Illinois, New York and other places to abandon Secure Communities to preserve public safety.

As for the broader issue of immigration reform, Mr. Obama’s aides insisted on Tuesday that he did, indeed, have a plan that interested Americans could read on the White House Web site. If Mr. Obama is really committed to this issue it’s going to take a lot more than that.