Monday, November 30, 2009

Obama set to send 30,000 extra troops

With a determination to "finish the job" in Afghanistan, US President Barack Obama will announce his new Afghan strategy Tuesday in a prime-time address at the West Point Military Academy, including a deployment of 30,000 or more US troops as part of an "escalation and exit" policy.

Before the public speech, Obama has already ordered his new Afghan strategy implemented, a White House spokesman said Monday.

In his speech, Obama will articulate both the timeframe for the military maneuver and the goal of this action, which aims to destroy the enemy and bring the troops back home, senior administration officials were quoted Monday by the Telegraph as saying.

Apart from the additional 30,000 to 35,000 troops, Obama will also advocate the sending of 10,000 more soldiers by NATO allies.

The military alliance, which has already contributed 42,000 soldiers to Afghanistan, still adopts a cautious attitude toward military build-up.

"There are real questions in our publics about the way forward, politically and not just militarily," NATO spokesman James Appathurai said.

Currently, only Britain has committed to sending about 500 extra troops.

However, the other major European powers, notably Germany and France, are reluctant to commit any, the AP reported last week.

After eight years engaged in an increasingly unpopular war in Afghanistan, the American president is besieged with tremendous pressure from different aspects.

The US had lost more than 900 troops in Afghanistan, and October was the deadliest month since 2001, with 74 US soldiers killed.

Apart from the human toll, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have cost $768.8 billion, and by the end of this fiscal year (October 2010) the price tag will approach $1 trillion.

The war has also taken its toll on Obama's personal approval rating, which has suffered the sharpest drop of any president in the past 50 years during the same stage of their first terms.

Washington hopes the buildup, expected to be phased in over the next 12 to 18 months, will create conditions to allow the US troop presence to eventually be scaled back, leading to a complete withdrawal from the country by 2017-2018.

However, conservative attitude still exists.

"No one has any illusions that this is the campaign, that you can just turn this thing around with a speech. A lot of this strategy depends on things we can't control – the Afghan government, the Taliban, the role of Pakistan. This is one of those issues that defines the extent and the limits of the president's power," a senior administration official was quoted by the Washington Post as saying.

Chelsea Clinton to Wed Long-Time Boyfriend

Chelsea Clinton, the only child of former President Bill Clinton and current Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has announced her engagement to long-time boyfriend Marc Mezvinsky.

Clinton, 29, the last child to grow up in the White House and who now works at a New York-based hedge fund, said in a mass email to friends that she and Mezvinsky, an investment banker, plan to marry next summer.

The announcement followed widespread but false reports over last summer that the pair had planned an August wedding at the resort island of Martha's Vineyard.

"We're sorry for the mass email but we wanted to wish everyone a belated Happy Thanksgiving! We also wanted to share that we are engaged!.
"We didn't get married this past summer despite the stories to the contrary, but we are looking toward next summer and hope you all will be there to celebrate with us. Happy Holidays! Chelsea & Marc," said the email, which was sent out on Friday and provided on Monday by Bill Clinton's charitable foundation.

There were no details on the wedding plans.

Chelsea Clinton has kept a low-profile since her father left the White House in January 2001 but she campaigned for her mother Hillary during her unsuccessful run for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.

Pakistani president remains vulnerable but defiant
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- President Asif Ali Zardari, fighting to keep his job amid pressure from opponents in the media, the courts, the parliament and the military, appears to have reasserted his grip on the presidency for the time being, according to analysts here.

But Zardari's government remains caught between pressure to support Washington in the war against Islamic insurgents in Afghanistan and the need to improve its tenuous relations with the army, which is focused on fighting domestic Taliban extremists and mistrusts the Obama administration's friendship with India, Pakistan's neighbor and arch-rival.

On Monday, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani -- who reports to Zardari but is also a political rival -- warned in a television interview that any sizeable increase in U.S. troops in Afghanistan would lead to a spillover of insurgents into Pakistan, further destabilizing the border area where troops are now conducting a ground and aerial war against domestic Taliban forces.

The warning from Gillani came one day before President Obama is scheduled to announce his long-awaited new Afghan strategy, which is likely to include adding tens of thousands more troops.

In the past week, the embattled president has had to relinquish a number of executive powers to Gillani in order to placate his adversaries. He agreed Friday to transfer control of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal to the prime minister, and has also given up his right to dissolve parliament, an authority he inherited from a decree by his military predecessor, Gen. Pervez Musharraf.

Now, Zardari's opponents in parliament are demanding that he give up even more authority, and some have called on him to resign. Zardari cannot be impeached because his Pakistan People's Party dominates the legislature, but it is now being widely predicted that he will serve out his term with greatly reduced powers.

Meanwhile, the president has also become vulnerable to legal action by the Supreme Court. An amnesty for past corruption charges against Zardari and a host of other officials expired Saturday, and although the president cannot be prosecuted while in office, the high court could also rule that his election was illegitimate and then pursue the original cases against him.

But Zardari, backed into a corner by multiple adversaries, has come out swinging. In a defiant speech last week, he lashed out at "political actors" seeking to dethrone him, and sharply criticized certain opponents in the media. He also forced the cancellation of a cable TV show whose host often criticized him.

Such clumsy actions drew further ridicule from the anti-Zardari press. Shaheen Sehbai, editor of the News International newspaper, wrote in a sarcastic column that he "laughed and laughed" at Zardari's "rants." Sehbai has called for the president to "step down with dignity," hand over his powers to Gillani or become a figurehead.

Zardari appears to have temporarily fended off a far more powerful opponent: the army. Analysts said that although the army is still unhappy about Zardari's concessions to Washington and soft stance on India, and has been working against him behind the scenes, it does not want to be linked to a messy or illegitimate change of government.

Moreover, military experts noted that the army is heavily dependent on U.S. spare parts and equipment to wage its current air war against the Taliban, and cannot afford to sabotage Zardari's ties with Washington just as U.S. officials are calling for a new "strategic relationship" with Pakistan.

"For Zardari to go, there has to be a definite push from somewhere, and it usually comes from Rawalpindi," the city where army headquarters is located, said Ayaz Amir, a political commentator and legislator from the rival Pakistan Muslim League. "I don't see that catalyst coming on the horizon."

The president has also received a political lifeline from a surprising source: his longtime rival, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif of the Muslim League. Until this month, Sharif had been seen as biding his time and waiting for Zardari to self-destruct so he could run for president in mid-term elections.

But in a high-profile TV interview recently, Sharif struck a more statesmanlike chord. He said he did not support a mid-term election or power-sharing formula. He warned that "time is running out for democracy" in Pakistan, and that obsessive partisan competition was partly to blame.

A third potential source of trouble for the president, Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, also seems less likely to pounce than he did just a few weeks ago. Analysts noted that the president has been careful not to antagonize the court, and that the judiciary could also be victimized in any forcible change of government.

"I don't think the chief justice wants to join hands with the army and bring Zardari down," said Rifaat Hussain, a professor of strategic and defense studies at Quaid-I-Azam University. Chaudhry was fired by Musharraf and then restored by a lawyers' crusade under Zardari. "He knows that the judiciary can only be strong in a democracy," Hussain said.