Saturday, September 5, 2009

Obama faces a pivotal autumn

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Americans are showing signs of impatience with their new president as Barack Obama enters a pivotal period facing a raft of critical decisions ranging from healthcare to Afghanistan.

A wide variety of public opinion polls paint a difficult picture for Obama, with Americans expressing doubts about his handling of the U.S. economy, healthcare and Afghanistan. His job approval rating has drifted down to around 50 percent. It was at 68 percent when he took office in January.

White House officials are aware of the challenges and are working to try to regain the initiative on his top domestic priority, a healthcare overhaul by year's end, after a tumultuous summer. Obama will give a speech to a joint session of Congress on September 9 and may use the rare forum to argue for his retooled strategy.

"The president is considering all of his options on how to advance the debate and get reform passed. This includes possibly laying out a more specific vision. No decisions have been made though," said a senior official.

Complicating the picture for Obama, there has been no broad feeling of economic rebirth despite gains in the stock market, a slowing in job losses and other signs of improvement.

He also faces foreign-policy challenges.

Amid mounting American casualties, he is reviewing a U.S. military report on Afghanistan and is facing conflicting pressures on how to confront the deteriorating situation there, with some liberals arguing for fewer troops and some at the Pentagon wanting to send more.


He is trying to coax Middle East peace moves back to life, engage Iran in diplomatic negotiations over its nuclear program with an end-of-September deadline approaching, and get North Korea back to nuclear talks.

His administration is also conducting policy reviews on a cluster of challenges -- Burma, Sudan and missile defense.

"It is a pivotal phase of his presidency on how he not only resolves healthcare but also deals with North Korea, Afghanistan and energy," said Democratic strategist Doug Schoen, who worked in the Clinton White House.

The Democratic president also is trying to nurse the U.S. economy out of a lingering recession that did not start on his watch but has lasted long enough to create political problems for him.

"Part of the problem here is the American public's appetite for immediate resolution of everything," said Democratic strategist Bud Jackson. "The biggest thing that President Obama could hope for is more patience from people."

Opposition Republicans, hoping to gain ground on Democratic majorities in the U.S. Congress in 2010 congressional elections, charge a $787 billion economic stimulus plan has done nothing to cure the country's 9.4 percent unemployment rate.

His financial regulatory reform plans are working their way through Congress and he sits down with world leaders at both the U.N. General Assembly in New York and at a Group of 20 summit in Pittsburgh this month to try to work out ways to boost the global economy.


Elections in November to determine governors of Virginia and New Jersey are looming as an early referendum on the president. The races are far from over but Republican candidates are in the lead.

"Obama is on the ballot, front and center, like it or not," said Republican strategist Scott Reed.

The first issue to confront Obama on his return next week from a two-week working vacation is healthcare, after raucous town hall meetings conducted by lawmakers showed that Americans are far from agreement on how deeply to revamp the system and confused as to what the overhaul would mean for them.

Many experts believe he will be forced to accept an agreement that is less than what he desired, well under the $1 trillion price tag and not as sweeping, without a government-run insurance option to compete with private insurers.

Some liberals say he should use the Democrats' power to ram through his plan even if by a slim majority, while some Republicans urge him to start afresh and conduct a more bipartisan approach.

"The American people believe we're headed in the wrong direction on healthcare and believe we should come back to Washington next week and start over," said Tennessee Republican Senator Lamar Alexander.

Pollster John Zogby said to some extent Obama is a victim of the high expectations that accompanied his ascension to power last January.

"This was bound to happen. The expectations were very high, at least relative to the previous administration where expectations had sort of bottomed out. Here's a new president, young and dynamic, lots of promise and promises, and this is what happens," he said.

Afghan election officials defend vote-counting

KABUL-- Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission sought to reassure voters Saturday that it was impartially tallying the results of the August presidential election.

The IEC was mainly responding to accusations by Abdullah Abdullah, the main challenger to President Hamid Karzai, who wants a second term in office. Abdullah is Karzai's former foreign minister.

According to the latest vote counts released by the commission, Karzai is getting close to having the 50 percent of votes needed to avoid a runoff.

Abdullah has called the alleged vote rigging "state-engineered fraud." He is demanding that the IEC stop announcing vote tallies from the provinces, and that the Electoral Complaints Commission inform Afghans about the status of its investigations.

By September, election officials said they had received nearly 2,500 complaints, with about 560 of them deemed serious enough to potentially affect the outcome. The grievances include polling irregularities, voter intimidation and ballot stuffing.

The complaints commission said that in order for election results to be certified, it must resolve the complaints.

"This is the blatant violation of the procedure, and I think it's stealing in daylight," Abdullah said at a Saturday news conference. He claimed the alleged malfeasance is reflected in the provisional results released so far.

"Today we see that everybody seems to be paralyzed. If there is an effort for cover-up, the cost of it is not for one candidate or another candidate. The cost of it is for the country," he said.

The IEC defended its work in Afghanistan.

The "IEC assures all the Afghan people, presidential and provincial council candidates that IEC has been doing its job impartially and faithfully," the commission said in a news release.

The IEC said it was considering Abdullah's allegations and statements to the media that there was "massive fraud" orchestrated by the government with the help of the commission.

"These statements are out of the expectation of IEC, since IEC has done its best to preserve its impartiality, and avoid any kinds of frauds without supporting any particular candidates.

"IEC has been processing the elections results with transparency and we assure you that the final result will be announced by the relevant commissions, and all the doubt and skepticism regarding the work of the IEC will be solved."

63 militants killed in Khyber Agency

BARA: At least 63 militants were killed and several others injured in a military operation in Tirah valley and Kambarkhel areas of Khyber Agency on Saturday, said security sources. Troops pounded Lashkar-e-Islam (LI) bases in Gogrina and Sandapal areas of Tirah valley. An LI centre – being used as a hideout and training facility – was destroyed, and at least 63 militants killed in that attack. The sources said six militants were killed in Kambarkhel area of the Bara tehsil, while two suspects were arrested from Shakas area. They said 15 houses were also demolished in Kambarkhel area of Khyber Agency’s Bara tehsil.

PUKHTUNKHWA(NWFP)s security is Pakistan’s security

The Chief of the Army Staff, General Ashfaq Kayani, inaugurating a rehabilitation centre for captive children trained as suicide-bombers by the Taliban, has said that the army has broken the back of the Taliban rebellion; but that the army will not leave the affected areas until the last vestige of the militants is removed. A news report parallel to his statement says there is a 62 percent decrease in terrorist attacks in the country after the success of the military operation in Malakand and FATA.

It is clear that the security of the entire country now depends on the state of war against terrorism in the above region. But more significantly, it is the security of the NWFP that has improved, meaning that one entire province of the country is in the process of regaining its governance. One can also note here the security linkage of the NWFP with the tribal areas — Malakand and FATA. Only Malakand is one-fourth of the area of the province with 3 million people inhabiting it.

What has been achieved is a significant pacification of a terrain that was held hostage by the Taliban and their mercenary warlords. The remnants of terror are still there and will have to be gotten rid of completely; but the interim period too provides a lot of satisfaction to those who want the NWFP to get its fair share from the central divisible pool and implement its development projects without being assailed by the Taliban. The truth that peace in the NWFP depends on peace in the tribal areas has now dawned on everyone; it is also clear that peace in the NWFP means peace in the rest of Pakistan.

The army operation has killed hundreds of terrorists. The Taliban are divided and their decision-making process is affected by a simmering ongoing contest for leadership. The effect on the NWFP has been very pronounced; but it is also recognised now that without sorting out the Khyber Agency of FATA, Peshawar can hardly be at rest. The army is getting to grips with the problem of Lashkar-e-Islam in Khyber run by a local warlord that easily trespasses into parts of Peshawar and kills people there. Khyber is also penetrated by the Taliban because of their strategy of attacking the NATO supply route.

All this has been achieved because of clarity of thinking in Pakistan, the government and the people both. The old policy of abstaining from designating the enemy clearly and interpreting the activity of the warlords correctly led to the consolidation of the illegal writ of the warlords. No one can measure the extent of damage done to the public mind in this period. The child suicide-bomber who says he will not hesitate to kill his parents is just one manifestation of it. There is a general lack of trust in the ability of the state to assert itself, which means that the public mind is free to opt for the worldview of those who control their lives with guns.

The army has its priorities right, but does the rest of the nation? One has to admit that the war against terror is not the uppermost thought among the politicians and some professional sections of civil society. While there is no opposition as such to the military operations, there seems to be a consensus that putting General Pervez Musharraf (retd) on trial for treason is more urgent. There is a tendency in favour of what is called “dittoism”, i.e., everyone thinking the same thought without a healthy tendency to break the uniformity of thought.

The politicians are busy in their infighting, barely hiding their instinct of revenging themselves upon each other. People with no expertise in economics are railing against shortages caused by the demand-push of Ramazan and want the government’s head as trophy, forcing Prime Minister Gilani to say he is not going anywhere. Few realise in this environment that if the war against terror doesn’t go well, all these priorities will be overthrown and the warlords will make their comeback, this time not on the peripheries, but right in the centre called Islamabad where they can still attack a federal minister at will.

Guv backs letting students watch to Obama speech

Republican Gov. Gary Herbert supports President Barack Obama's plan to deliver a televised back-to-school speech to the nation's students on Tuesday, saying he sees "nothing but good coming out of this."
Herbert said he favors letting students listen to the speech, and he thinks it will foster a dialogue between parents and their children.
"I think it's great. To hear from the president of the United States is an important thing," he said Saturday. "I'd like to hear what he has to say.
"I hope parents will take the opportunity to discuss the issues with their children, hear what the presidents views are and what his vision is for the future of America. If they agree, then explain that. If they disagree, explain to their children why. I see nothing but good coming out of this," he said.
The governor, who has grandchildren in the Utah school system, said he can't imagine that they wouldn't watch the speech.
Conservative critics have charged that the speech is an underhanded attempted at political indoctrination.
White House officials say the 15- to 20-minute speech is about getting students to work hard and stay in school.

Obama Expands Workers' Retirement Options

U.S. President Barack Obama has announced new initiatives designed to make it easier for Americans to save for retirement. In his weekly national radio and Internet address, Mr. Obama noted the "painful toll" the global economic downturn has had on "retirement security."He said the government will make it easier for small companies to set up retirement savings plans in which all workers are automatically enrolled, unless they ask to be omitted.The government will also begin allowing people to check a box on their federal tax returns asking that any refund be sent as a savings bond. another new option will make it possible for workers when leaving a job to put payments for unused vacation and sick days into their retirement account, rather than taking it in cash.The president said the Internal Revenue Service and the Treasury Department are creating an easy-to-follow manual, as well as a Web site, to help people navigate the "complicated waters" of changing jobs and continuing their retirement savings. Mr. Obama said the "common-sense changes," will help families put away money for the future. He said "tens of millions" of families have not been able to put away enough money for a secure retirement.

Blast Targets German Troops in Afghanistan

VOA News

A roadside bomb exploded Saturday near a convoy of German troops in northern Afghanistan, a day after German military commanders ordered a NATO airstrike in the region, killing up to 90 people, many of them civilians.

Authorities say the blast damaged vehicles, but there are no report of any serious injuries from Saturday's explosion.

NATO is calling for an investigation of Friday's air strike that blew up two fuel trucks in a massive explosion.

The pre-dawn strike was ordered by German military commanders after fuel trucks that had been hijacked earlier by Taliban militants were spotted on a river bank in the Northern Kunduz province, surrounded by what appeared to be insurgents, in the process of unloading the tankers.

German officials say the order to attack was given because the trucks could be used as weapons in a suicide attack against nearby German troops.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the NATO command in Afghanistan are promising full investigations into the civilian deaths.

Mr. Karzai issued a statement saying "targeting civilians is unacceptable."

Provincial officials say the strike killed 56 Taliban militants and a large number of civilians, including children who had been called to the area by the Taliban members to remove fuel from the tankers.

An Interior Ministry spokesman, Zemarai Bashary, said the government is working to confirm civilian casualties.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs expressed concern about the reports of civilian deaths.

Afghan civilian deaths during foreign military operations have caused resentment among the public.

U.S. Army General Stanley McChrystal ordered U.S. and NATO troops in July to limit the use of air strikes to try to reduce such casualties.

U.S. military commanders say protecting Afghan civilians and providing security is a focal point of the Obama administration's revamped strategy in Afghanistan.

Troops kill 35 militants in Khyber strikes

JAMRUD: Troops backed by helicopter gunships killed about 35 militants on Saturday in attacks on militant hideouts in the northwestern Khyber Pass region, a spokesman for the paramilitary Frontier Corps said.The Khyber Pass is a main route for supplies being trucked from Karachi to western forces battling al-Qaeda and Taliban militants in Afghanistan.The airstrikes come as troops continue mopping up militant positions in the northwestern Swat valley, where the military says more than 2,000 militants have been killed since an offensive was launched in April.Troops began a new operation in the Khyber this week against militants, including some who had fled from the Swat offensive.‘Our forces targeted a headquarters of Lashkar-i-Islam and about 15 militants were killed in the attack,’ said a Frontier Corps spokesman in Peshawar, referring to a group under the command of Mangal Bagh, an ethnic Pashtun militant.Another 20 were killed elsewhere in the region on strikes on hideouts of militants loyal to Bagh.Khyber is one of seven Pakistani tribal regions with a high degree of autonomy based on tribal laws. On August 27 a suicide bomber killed 22 border guards at the main crossing to Afghanistan.In Swat, security forces killed a militant commander and arrested five others, according to a military statement.Another seven militants surrendered to security forces.
Troops also destroyed two militant hideouts in the neighbouring Dir region, the military said.The show of force in Swat and elsewhere has helped allay fears among allies —particularly the United States and others with troops in Afghanistan — that Pakistan was failing to confront militants.

Swat Museum to be re-opened

PESHAWAR: The NWFP government on Friday decided to reopen the Swat Museum, while all preperations have been finalised in this regard.During Operation Rah-e-Rast the Swat Museum was closed for an indefinite period of time, while the heritage of the museum was shifted to Peshawar to safeguard it.However after the successful operation of the security forces and the safe return of all IDPs, all offices have now been reopened.
As law and order situation is improving in Swat, the provincial government has now decided to reopen the museum. -Online