Tales from the Trail

The First Draft: Details

OBAMA/The devil’s in the details, the saying goes, and we’ll find out plenty of details today about two big initiatives of the Obama administration: the budget and the bank bailout.

At 10:35 a.m., Obama will propose slashing $17 billion from the U.S. budget in 121 programs ranging from weapons systems to mine cleanup. Republicans are likely to say that’s not enough to tame his $3.55 trillion budget.

At 5 p.m., the Treasury Department will reveal the results of its “stress tests” of major banks, and is expected to say that about half of the 19 largest banks will need to raise more money to stay financially should.

Aside from that, there’s plenty of other things happening in Washington today.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is in town; he holds a news conference with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at 1 p.m. and meets with Obama at 4:15.

Afghan solution: pomegranates for poppies

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has an idea for dealing with the heroin trade in Afghanistan: pomegranates. AFGHANISTAN

That could in effect shoot two birds with one stone, as the saying goes, merging her previous focus as first lady on healthcare with her new responsibiities as U.S. diplomacy chief.

Pomegranate juice is proven to lower cholesterol, Clinton told a congressional hearing. “Afghanistan used to be and still is one of the principle growers of pomegranates, and I think there’s a lot we can do here,” she said.

from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

Defending women’s rights in Afghanistan and Pakistan

Barely had President Barack Obama outlined a new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan meant to narrow the focus to eliminating the threat from al Qaeda and its Islamist allies, before the U.S.-led campaign ran into what was always going to be one of its biggest problems in limiting its goals. What does it do about the rights of women in the region?

The treatment of women has dominated the headlines this week after Afghan President Hamid Karzai signed a new law for the minority Shi'ite population which both the United States and the United Nations said could undermine women's rights. Karzai has promised a review of the law, while also complaining it was misinterpreted by Western journalists. 

In Pakistan, video footage has been circulated of Taliban militants flogging a teenage girl in the Swat valley, where the government concluded a peace deal with the Taliban in February. The graphic and disturbing video, which has been posted on YouTube, has outraged many Pakistanis and the flogging was condemned by Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani as shameful. There have been contradictory reports of exactly when and why the girl was punished, although Dawn newspaper quoted a witness as saying she was flogged two weeks ago for refusing a marriage proposal.

First Draft: Afghan plan

President Barack Obama to announce plan to send more troops to Afghanistan to help stabilize the country after Democrats for years criticized his predecessor, George W. Bush, of ignoring that war because of Iraq.

But the plan won’t overshadow White House focus on U.S. economic issues always lurking in the wings.USA/

Obama to meet with bankers and talk about regulation. Sort of like a doctor meeting with a patient and talking about medicine that is not going to be very pleasant.

U.S. stimulus to cost more than Iraq, Afghan war so far

US/WASHINGTON – Republican critics of the Democratic-backed landmark stimulus package are pointing out that its 800-billion-dollar-plus price tag would — “in one fell swoop,” as Republican Representative Todd Akin put it — consume more resources than have been laid out for two wars, so far.

The Pentagon says the United States has committed $524.6 billion to the nearly six-year-old conflict in Iraq and $120.9 billion to the fighting in Afghanistan since 2001.

“I almost have to pinch myself, gentlemen, to think that just standing here a couple of hours ago, we just voted to spend $800 billion, more than the cost of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan,” the Republican Akin declared Wednesday after the House of Representatives passed the stimulus without a single Republican vote in favor.

from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

Obama’s South Asian envoy and the Kashmir conundrum

Earlier this month, I wrote that the brief given to a South Asian envoy by President Barack Obama could prove to be the first test of the success of Indian diplomacy after the Mumbai attacks. At issue was whether the envoy would be asked to focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan or whether the brief would be extended to India, reflecting comments made by Obama during his election campaign that a resolution of the Kashmir dispute would ease tensions across the region.

That question has been resolved - publicly at least -- with the appointment of Richard Holbrooke as Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. No mention of India or Kashmir.

India has long resisted overt outside interference in Kashmir and argued - with great vehemence since the Mumbai attacks - that tensions in South Asia were caused by Pakistan's support for, or tolerance of, Islamist militants rather than the Kashmir dispute.  For India, a public reference to Kashmir following Mumbai would amount to endorsing what it calls cross-border terrorism.

from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

Obama and his South Asian envoy

There's much talk about President-elect Barack Obama possibly appointing Richard Holbrooke as a special envoy to South Asia. The New York Times says it's likely; while the Washington Independent says it may be a bit premature to expect final decisions, even before Obama takes office on Jan. 20.

But more interesting perhaps than the name itself will be the brief given to any special envoy for South Asia. Would the focus be on Afghanistan and Pakistan? Or on Pakistan and India? Or all three? The Times of India said India might be removed from the envoy's beat to assuage Indian sensitivities about Kashmir, which it sees as a bilateral issue to be resolved with Pakistan, and which has long resisted any outside mediation. This, the paper said, was an evolution in thinking compared to statements made by Obama during his election campaign about Kashmir.

Before last year's Mumbai attacks, Obama had suggested that the United States should help India and Pakistan to make peace over Kashmir as part of a regional strategy to stabilise Afghanistan. In this he was supported by a raft of U.S. analysts who argued that Pakistan would never fully turn against Islamist militants threatening the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan as long as it felt it might need them to counter burgeoning Indian influence in the region. Obama's suggestion raised hackles in India, and broke with a tradition established by the Bush administration which had tended to be -- publicly at least -- hands-off about the Kashmir dispute. 

The First Draft: Monday, Dec 15

For Detroit’s struggling automakers, the wait continues.

There will be no word on the fate of the struggling industry’s financial bailout at least until President George W. Bush is safely home later on Monday after ducking shoes in Iraq and visiting U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the White House says.
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Most analysts and observers are expecting White House action soon to help the carmakers after the Senate’s failure last week to approve a $14 billion bailout that could avert catastrophic failures and millions of job losses in a recession-wracked economy.

But White House spokesman Dana Perino said there was no timetable for a decision.

The double life of Robert Gates

Defense Secretary Robert Gates is leading a double life these days.
 
Maybe that’s not so tough for a former spymaster but it does make for some awkward moments.
 AFGHAN-USA/GATES
As the only member of President George W. Bush’s Cabinet asked to stay on under Barack Obama, Gates has to juggle working for the current White House and preparing for the next administration with the president-elect’s transition team.
 
“There’s only one commander-in-chief at a time and so I’m not forgetting at all, for a second, who is the president until noon on Jan. 20,” the former CIA director stressed to reporters on board his plane as he flew to Afghanistan this week.
 
But Gates admitted his dual role did “create some occasional awkwardnesses.”
 
Sometimes, he recounted, he has to say: “I would love to come to this meeting at the White House but I actually have a meeting with the transition.”
 
Gates made clear he had never missed a meeting with Bush.
 
But he added: “Let’s just say that if I’m faced with a choice between attending a principals’ meeting on an issue that I think is not particularly hot and meeting with the transition folks, I’ll opt for the latter.”

For more Reuters political news, click here.

Photo credit: Reuters/Pool (Gates shakes hands with U.S. Air Force officials at a base in Kyrgyzstan on Dec. 11)

from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

Mumbai attack and Obama’s plans for Afghanistan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As if the challenge facing President-elect Barack Obama of stabilising Afghanistan was not difficult enough, it may have just got much, much harder after the Mumbai attacks soured relations between India and Pakistan -- undermining hopes of finding a regional solution to the Afghan war.

As discussed in an earlier post, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has blamed a group outside India for the attacks which killed at least 121 people. The coordinated attacks bore the hallmarks of Pakistani-based Kashmiri militant groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba, which India says was set up by Pakistan's spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI.

Pakistan has condemned the attacks and an Indian government spokesman said the head of the ISI had agreed to visit India to share information -- an extraordinary agreement given that the two countries have fought three wars and came to the brink of a fourth in 2001/2002. But it's hard to believe that would be enough to appease India after the brazen attack on its commercial capital exposed its vulnerability.