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from Stories I’d like to see:

Examining the insanity defense, MSNBC’s weekend sleaze, and suing OPEC

1. The Afghan massacre and the insanity defense:

Beginning late last week we began to see the outlines of a possible defense for Robert Bales, the army sergeant who allegedly massacred 16 Afghan civilians earlier this month: insanity or diminished capacity. “When it all comes out, it will be a combination of stress, alcohol and domestic issues -- he just snapped,” a “senior American official” told the New York Times. So, it’s time for a general review of the tough-to-pull-off insanity or diminished capacity defenses, along with a focus on the even higher hurdles involved in using either in a court-martial. (An insanity defense is a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity; diminished capacity means the defendant does not contest guilt but seeks to be convicted of a lesser offense or get a more lenient sentence.) That story should also tell us how much Bales’s defense lawyer might be able to turn the case into a trial over increasingly controversial Pentagon policies related to multiple redeployments, the treatment of traumatic head injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder. Good sidebars would tell us whether Afghanistan, whose Parliament is still demanding that Bales be tried in Afghan courts, even allows an insanity defense, and how open the trial is likely to be, including to cameras.

Years ago, I wrote a piece for Psychology Today about the insanity defense that was keyed to the case of John Hinckley, whose lawyers used it successfully after he tried to kill President Reagan. It presents a fascinating legal dilemma, which in its oversimplified version is: The more outrageous your crime, the better your argument that you had to be insane to do it, but the more likely it is that jurors will be so angry that they’ll want to hang you for it anyway.

2. The numbers behind MSNBC’s weekend sleaze-fests:

Can one of the media trade publications or a New York Times, Wall Street Journal, or Reuters media reporter please do a story explaining why it makes sense for MSNBC to do a series of sleazy shows -- Lockup, Sex Slaves, Caught on Camera -- during the evening and in prime time on weekends? Last Saturday night, while CNN was doing a riveting, important report entitled, 72 Hours Under Fire, about the massacre of dissidents in Syria as witnessed by its gutsy reporting team, MSNBC was broadcasting Lockup: Boston, one of its stable of Lockup shows depicting life inside prisons that has all the journalistic value of rubbernecking at a car accident.

Do the ratings justify undercutting the much-promoted MSNBC brand -- “The Place for Politics” -- this way, especially during a time when there is all kinds of news breaking out over the weekends related to the Republican primaries and conflicts in the Middle East? How do the expense and revenue numbers add up? Why wouldn’t running shows akin to MSNBC’s new crop of weekend morning political shows, with Chris Hayes and Melissa Harris Perry, make more sense? Why do advertisers like Liberty Mutual run spots on this Lockup garbage? What does Brian Roberts, the chairman and CEO of Comcast, which now owns MSNBC, have to say about all of this? It’s not simply a matter of the taste and civic values associated with a news organization, though I’d love to hear Roberts and his colleagues discuss that. I’m also curious about the simple cost-benefit analysis of undercutting a brand this way; it could be a good window on the economics of cable-TV news.

from David Rohde:

The way out of the Afghan abyss

To a growing number of Americans, Afghanistan is a festering pit where the United States has no vital interests. To a growing number of Afghans, the United States is a self-absorbed and feckless power that is playing games in their country.

Both caricatures are wrong. Yes, American troops should gradually withdraw from Afghanistan. And yes, the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai remains corrupt and largely ineffective. But what is needed is a decisive agreement between the Afghan and American governments on the way forward, not sniping at each other in public and pandering to domestic political audiences.

from Expert Zone:

Afghanistan: Negotiating while withdrawing is poor strategy

(The views expressed in this column are the author's own and do not represent those of Reuters)

In the wake of a U.S. Army staff sergeant’s murdering 16 Afghan civilians (mostly women and children), U.S. officials are contemplating the pace and scope of the U.S. troop drawdown from the country. At the same time, they are seeking a negotiated settlement with the Taliban leadership. U.S. and NATO Commander in Afghanistan General John Allen said yesterday that he did not foresee an accelerated drawdown of U.S. troops because of the shooting incident, but it is almost inevitable that this terrible tragedy will lead Americans to question the viability of the U.S. mission there.

from Stories I’d like to see:

Afghan justice, Putin’s palace, and the Edwards trial

1. International, Afghan and American law surrounding the accused soldier-murderer:

With the Afghan Parliament demanding yesterday that the American soldier accused of killing 16 civilians there be put on trial locally rather than be tried by American military courts, I’m betting that the office of State Department Legal Advisor Harold Koh and others in Washington are working overtime to frame a response. How will they decide whether our army turns him over? What could their arguments be against that? What are prevailing international law and military law precedents, and how much will they matter? What are the likely ramifications for the presidential election? What position will the Republican candidates take? All parts of an important, urgent story likely to play out this week.

from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

Culture wars: The burning of the Koran

U.S. President Barack Obama has apologised for the inadvertent burning of copies of the Koran at a military base in Afghanistan and the top general in the country has ordered all coalition troops to undergo training in the proper handling of religious materials by March 3.

Quite apart from the question of how can you "inadvertently" burn books, the bigger issue is can soldiers be so blindly ignorant of the consequences of their action ? Is it because these were soldiers in the rear, insulated  in a huge base that  sometimes feels like a little America with its gymns, snack joints and the easy conviviality between men and women, a setting far removed from the hard-scrabble country outside ?

from Tales from the Trail:

Washington Extra – Peace by piece

Not since Vietnam has the United States sat down with an enemy it was fighting on the battlefield and negotiated an exit from war. That long-standing policy might end this year if a carefully choreographed diplomatic dance takes U.S. and Afghan officials to a negotiating table with the Taliban.

As Reuters Washington correspondent Missy Ryan explains, President Obama's peace gambit has the potential to be a significant development for U.S. foreign policy. But it turns out it is a policy borne out of necessity: two years ago, the Pentagon thought the Taliban could be defeated militarily, and today, it's all too clear they aren't going away.

from Tales from the Trail:

Washington Extra – Combat ready?

The Obama administration is known to be methodical when it comes to its messaging. But Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's declaration that the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan might end next year seems to have caught people here and overseas by surprise.

Today, everyone from Panetta to White House spokesman Jay Carney to NATO allies tried to tamp down notions that a major policy shift was underway. But many were still scratching their head about whether there is now a new U.S. timetable for winding down a war that is over a decade old.

from Expert Zone:

Gains seen for Taliban as post-ISAF era looms in Afghanistan

(The views expressed in this column are the author's own and do not represent those of Reuters)

A fear embedded deep in the Pakistani security establishment’s psyche has always been that of a successful conventional military thrust by India from across its eastern borders. This is aggravated by their assessment that Pakistan lacks the geographical depth to absorb the onslaught; its logistics dumps being especially vulnerable on account of the inability to place them at an adequate depth. The answer, often articulated, is of a pliant regime in its western neighbour Afghanistan providing the strategic geographical depth that Pakistan needs.

from Photographers' Blog:

Afghanistan’s symphony

By Omar Sobhani

Usually when I go to shoot for a story, we are faced with a bomb blast, a suicide attack, or some other type of violence here in Afghanistan. That's why I was pleasantly surprised when I visited Afghanistan’s National Institute of Music. Even though I have lived in Kabul for many years, I had no clue this academy even existed -- it is the only of its kind in the whole country.

Foreigners and Afghans teach young Afghans how to play all sorts of instruments, as well as to sing. What struck me most is the opportunity given to women. There are not many opportunities for women in Afghanistan to play or sing music -- during the Taliban era (from 1996-2001) music was outright banned and women were basically taken away from public life.

from David Rohde:

Talk to the Taliban

WASHINGTON -- As American officials scramble to contain the fallout from an appalling video showing Marines urinating on dead Taliban fighters, news that the Obama administration is carrying out secret negotiations with the Taliban has barely registered on the American political landscape. The lack of interest in the talks - and public outrage at the video - reflects how little Americans apparently care about the conflict, despite its staggering human and fiscal cost.

Since 2001, the war in Afghanistan has killed at least 8,000 Afghan civilians, 5,500 Afghan police and soldiers, 1,800 American soldiers and 900 soldiers from other nations.

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