Tag Archives: Taliban

Poll: Is the War in Afghanistan a Lost Cause?

With President Obama’s controversial decision to end the combat mission in Afghanistan by mid-2013, rising tensions between the U.S. and the Karzai government, and public relations victories for the Taliban in the form of Koran burnings by U.S. soldiers and NATO airstrikes killing Afghan civilians, the situation in Afghanistan has been growing more and more tenuous.  In this context, last week’s massacre of 16 Afghan civilians by a U.S. soldier could be seen as the last straw that decisively breaks the back of the counterinsurgency effort and makes it impossible to achieve NATO’s goals in the region (including the defeat of the Taliban and the creation of a stable government).  Take the poll below and let us know what you think.

Did Obama “Flinch” on Afghanistan?

President Obama announces a timeline for withdrawing forces from Afghanistan in an address to the nation on June 22, 2011.

In President Obama’s speech to the nation on Wednesday night, he announced that he would be withdrawing 10,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2011 and an additional 23,000 by summer 2012.  This would leave the U.S. with 68,000 troops by next summer, and the administration has pledged to withdraw all forces by the end of 2014.  As noted by David Rothkopf, this withdrawal plan is too slow for some critics (most of whom are on the political left), and too fast for others (generally on the political right).

Most of the criticism is coming from the conservative side of the political spectrum, and it highlights some crucial strategic dilemmas associated with counterinsurgency–the type of war the U.S. has increasingly found itself engaged in since 9/11.  Counterinsurgency warfare focuses on providing security for the civilian population and winning the “hearts and minds” of the people so they support the government rather than the insurgents.  Many critics of Obama’s withdrawal plan have suggested that by adhering to arbitrary deadlines for withdrawal–based on domestic political pressure rather than conditions on the ground in Afghanistan–Obama risks undoing all the progress that has been made at enormous cost, in blood and treasure, over the past decade (including Obama’s own “surge” of forces in late 2009).  An oft-repeated concern is that by setting clear timetables for withdrawal America signals the enemy that they can just “wait us out” and signals Afghan civilians that we won’t be there to protect them from these militants, so they had better start hedging their bets.

Michael Waltz, a former special forces officer with multiple tours in Afghanistan, raises these concerns in an ominous piece in Foreign Policy:

“What this administration doesn’t fully realize is that the Afghans, their government, the Pakistanis, the Indians, the Iranians, and the rest of South and Central Asia aren’t listening to the policy nuances of Wednesday’s announcement. All they hear is U.S. withdrawal and abandonment. More disturbingly, all the Taliban and al Qaeda hear is that they have survived the worst of it and they only need to last a few more years until 2014. Three and a half years is nothing in that part of the world. Although Obama attempted to emphasize that significant U.S. forces will remain after the withdrawal of the surge, their very mission to win over the populace will be severely undercut by the message he sent Wednesday night. The entire region is now hedging against the United States rather than siding with it.”

Similarly, the editors of the conservative publication National Review take issue with Obama’s strategy in a piece entitled “Obama Flinches”:

“There’s a reason Gen. David Petraeus opposed this kind of drawdown and that, apparently, no general supported it…It’s Obama’s prerogative as commander-in-chief to make whatever strategic judgment he deems appropriate, but the lack of military support for this decision highlights its essentially political nature…[the Afghan] government is a mess and — to one extent or another — always will be.  Afghanistan is a poor, tribal society.  We should have no great expectations for it.  The question is whether it is fated to be ruled by (or at least provide safe haven to) the Taliban and other extremists.  President Obama just made it more likely the answer to that question will be ‘yes.'”

The counterarguments provided by Obama and Congressional Democrats include (a) we are winning and we will keep the pressure on the Taliban and Al Qaeda, both in Afghanistan and Pakistan (e.g., through drone strikes), as we withdraw our ground forces, and (b) setting clear deadlines for withdrawal forces Afghanistan’s government to step up, “grow up,” and take on the roles of providing security and providing basic services instead of remaining dependent on American assistance.

Who do you think is right?  Is Obama’s withdrawal schedule too fast, too slow, or just right?  Does it ignore the realities of counterinsurgency warfare, the commitment of our adversaries, and the politics of the region, or is it a sensible policy for ending this costly war and beginning, as Obama declared in his speech, to “focus on nation building here at home”?

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A suicide bomb attack in Iran killed several senior commanders of the country’s elite Revolutionary Guard and at least twenty tribal leaders in the southeastern province of Sistan-Baluchestan, which borders Pakistan and Afghanistan. The bombing was the first major terrorist attack in Iran in more than twenty years, and represents a major public relations blow for the Iranian government. A group known as Jundallah claimed responsibility for the attack, though the Iranian government has also attempted to place blame on the British government for the attack, claiming that Britain has an “overt and hidden hand in terrorist attack against Iran.” Juddallah is a Pakistan-based radical Sunni group campaigning for independence for ethnic Baluchis in Iran.

In an unrelated development, the Russian government indicated it would be willing to impose sanctions on Iran if the Iranian government fails to implement promises it made to the international community regarding its nuclear program. This represents a significant hardening of the Russian position on Iran, which it had previously dismissed as “unproductive.”

In news from outside Iran in the last week:

1. The United Nations-backed panel investigating elections in Afghanistan appears poised to overturn August election results. The panel is recommending that a number of suspicious ballots be thrown out, thus necessitating a runoff election between incumbent president Hamid Karzai and his rival, Abdullah Abdullah. The United States is attempting to resolve the growing political crisis, which threatens to complicate President Barack Obama’s decision on whether or not to expand the U.S. troop presence in the country.

2. Fights between rival drug gangs rocked Rio de Janeiro over the weekend, only one week after the city was named host of the 2016 summer Olympics. At least fourteen people were killed in the violence, and a police helicopter was shot down as members of the Comando Vermelho, Rio’s largest gang, and its rival, Amigos dos Amigos, fought in the favelas that surround the city. The state governor, Sergio Cabral, informed the International Olympic Committee of the events, noting, “We told the OIC this is not a simple matter, and they know this, and we want to arrive in 201 with Rio in peace before, during, and after the games.”

3. The Pakistani government launched a new offensive against Taliban strongholds in the South Waziristan region. The new offensive comes after two weeks in which the Taliban had engaged in a series of attacks against the Pakistani government and military. The Pakistani government believes that the Taliban may have as many as 10,000 militant fighters assembled in the region, which is also believed to be the hiding location for Osama bin Laden.

4. In a dramatic regional contrast, citizens in Botswana are expected to hand the government if Ian Khama a victory in Friday’s elections, while the government of neighboring Zimbabwe is struggling to address the continuing political instability there. Botswana is widely viewed as a success story in Southern Africa, due in part to its political stability and part to its vast diamond wealth.  But as global diamond prices fall, the economy of Botswana may begin to struggle. The government faces a severe budget shortfall, due primarily to a dramatic decline in diamond prices, necessitating a $1.5 billion loan from the African Development Bank.

Meanwhile, in Zimbabwe, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai threatened to “disengage” from working with President Robert Mugabe. The two have been part of a power sharing arrangement since Febraury, but Tsvangarai’s party, the Movement for Democratic Change, has been marginalized from real political power.

5. The United States budget deficit has reached a record level of $1.4 trillion for the last fiscal year, as the government expanded spending significantly in order to address the global economic downturn. The deficit was approximately 10 percent of gross domestic product, but was $162 billion less than the administration forecast in August. Tax revenue fell by more than 16 percent as a result of the economic downturn, but spending increased by more than 18 percent.

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The Nobel Prize Committee sparked considerable debate on Friday when they named President Barack Obama the recipient of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize. According to the committee, Obama received the award for “his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and co-operation between peoples,” citing in particular his effort to reach out to the Muslim world and his push for nuclear disarmament. FT blogger Gideon Rachman commented, “while it is OK to give school children prizes for “effort” – my kids get them all the time – I think international statesmen should probably be held to a higher standard.” Qari Mohammad Yousof Ahmadi, a senior spokesman for Afghanistan’s Taliban movement said of the award, “Obama should be awarded the war prize, rather than the peace prize.” Daniel Drezner said the decision “cheapens an already devalued prize.” At Foreign Policy, David Rothkopf decried the decision as “the most ludicrous choice in the history of an award that has a pretty dubious history… It’s as if a freshman tailback were handed the Heisman Trophy as he ran onto the playing field along with a hearty pat on the back and the explanation that he’d been selected to encourage him to have a great year to come.”

But most of the criticism of the award seems to be reserved for the Nobel Peace Prize Committee rather than for President Obama. Indeed, while calling the decision a “ludicrous choice,” Rothkoph also praised Obama’s speech regarding the award. He wrote,

Short of deferring his acceptance of the Nobel Prize, President Obama could not have struck a better tone in his remarks this morning accepting the award. From saying he did not deserve it to framing the award as a “call to action” to citing others who merited such an award, he was pitch-perfect. And in reciting some of his key goals — from the elimination of nuclear weapons to combating climate change to bringing a lasting peace between Israel and Palestine — he raised hope that the award might be even further motivation to advance to what are, as noted above, worthy objectives.

In news from outside the Nobel Prize awards:

1. The security situation in Pakistan appears to be in serious decline. Over the weekend, a group of militants stormed the headquarters of the Pakistani military in Rawalpindi, taking hostages and creating a standoff situation. The Pakistani military was able to retake the compound early Sunday, rescuing 42 hostages and killing most of the militants. On Friday, a car bomb exploded near a shopping mall in Peshawar, a city in the northern part of the country. The attack, described by Pakistani security officials as “one of the most daring attacks ever carried out by the Taliban,” killed 49 people and injuring nearly 100. The attack came just one day after a similar bombing outside the Indian embassy in Afghanistan, and may constitute part of a renewed offensive by Taliban elements operating along the Afghan-Pakistan border. Last week, the Pakistani government launched a renewed offensive against the Taliban in the Waziristan region of the country. But so far, the campaign has had few successes, and the increase in recent attacks, particularly the brazen attack against Pakistani military headquarters, cast doubt on the ability of the Pakistani military to effectively address the Taliban threat.

2. Despite reservations that the treaty would erode national sovereignty and transfer too much power to Germany, Lech Kaczynski, the President of Poland, signed the Lisbon Treaty on Saturday. Poland’s accession make the Czech Republic the lone European Union member that has not approved the Lisbon Treaty. Despite Czech resistance, the treaty appears to be headed for adoption and thus a radical restructuring of the European Union. The treaty would make EU decision making more efficient, streamlining the current voting system in the European Council and strengthening the role of the European Parliament.

3. A number of trade disputes intensified last week. On Thursday, the United States announced an investigation into Chinese steel pipes, the culmination of which could result in a 98.7 percent duty on steel pine imports from China. The announcement follows the imposition of a 35 percent duty on Chinese tire imports last month and a longstanding dispute over Chinese currency values.  Meanwhile, the United States filed a complaint against the European Union with the World Trade Organization on Thursday. The complaint alleges that EU restrictions on the importation of chicken meat washed with chlorine and other chemicals constitutes an unfair trade barrier. Canada last week filed a complaint with the WTO alleging US country-of-origin labeling requirements in cattle and hog exports also constitute an unfair trade barrier.

4. Intervention by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was able to help overcome last minute setbacks to the Armenian-Turkish peace treaty on Saturday. The agreement, which must still be approved by both country’s parliaments, sets out a timeline to restore diplomatic relations and open the border between Amenia and Turkey. While the agreement was difficult to reach, both sides stand to gain. For Turkey, resolving the longstanding dispute could smooth its path to membership in the European Union and increase its influence in the Caucasus. Armenia could see its economy improve access to European Union market. Despite the potential benefits, the agreement could still be derailed due to longstanding tensions between the two countries, which date back to 1915 murder of up to 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire, often referred to as the world’s first genocide.

5. On Tuesday, Idelphonse Nizeyimana, a key player in Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, was arrested in Uganda. Nizeyimana was responsible for the organization of the genocide in Butare, a southern province in Rwanda. The arrest was the second high profile detention in a month, following the arrest of Gregoire Ndahimana in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But the arrests highlight tensions between Rwanda and the United Nations over the handling of charges related to the genocide, in which more than 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and politically moderate Hutus will killed. Both Nizeyimana and Ndahimana have been transferred to Tanzania to stand trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, despite efforts by the Rwandan government to have them tried by the Rwandan government in Kigali.

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The G20 meeting in Pittsburg this week resulted in agreement on several important principles, with the group agreeing in principle to establish guidelines for bankers’ pay, developing a timetable for reforming financial regulations, and establishing a new framework for economic growth. The G20 also agreed to transfer five percent of the shares in the International Monetary Fund and three percent of the shares in the World Bank to emerging countries. The organizations have long been criticized for voting structures which over-represent the developed world at the expense of the developing world.

In other news from the previous week:

1. There were several important developments in Iran this week. On Sunday, Iran test fired a short-range missile as part of ongoing war games in the country. The missile, a Shahab-3, has range sufficient to reach Israel and U.S. bases in the Persian Gulf. The launch comes just days after the United States announced it had discovered Iran possessed a second, secret uranium enrichment facility. France and the United Kingdom joined the United States in condemning Iran for misleading the international community. The discovery and announcement put pressure on Tehran, which maintains that the facility is used for peaceful purposes. The most recent announcement produced new signals from Russia, which had historically opposed sanctions against Iran. But after being briefed on the new facilities by the Obama administration, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev indicated that the Russian government may be willing to consider sanctions as a way of addressing the Iranian nuclear situation.

2. Germany is headed to the polls today, with most analysts calling the election too close to call and many speculating about what kind of coalition will take control of the world’s fourth largest economy. Although Angela Merkel’s ruling Christian Democrats have been leading throughout the campaign, her support has been slipping over the past week. With low turnout forecast, observers believe that the election could still be close. Further, a quirk in the German voting system could result in Merkel’s CDU winning a plurality of seats in the Bundestag despite winning a smaller percentage of the popular vote than her rivals. Her rival, the Social Democrats, have lagged in the polls throughout the campaign but managed a late-campaign surge. No matter what the margins, negotiations around a forming a new coalition in Germany will likely be the central focus of German politics in coming days.

3. Two car bombings believed to the work of the Taliban in Pakistan killed 27 people on Saturday. The attacks targeted Pakistan’s military and police forces, coming just days after the country’s President, Asif Ali Zardari, appealed to the G20 for assistance in fighting terrorism in Pakistan. The attacks demonstrate the resilience of the Taliban in Pakistan, which has been engaged in a protracted war with the national military. Last month, the Pakistani military killed Baitullah Mehsud, the Taliban’s main leader in Pakistan, and earlier this year, the military killed more than 3,000 Taliban militants in operations in the Swat valley region. Despite these losses, however, the Taliban remains a central threat to the stability of the Pakistani regime. 

4. The government of Guinea is moving forward with its efforts to overturn some of the contracts signed with foreign companies under the military dictatorship of Lansana Conté, whose 24 year-rule ended with his death in December. The new government has already forced Rio Tinto to return a portion of its iron ore concessions and convinced the South African gold company, AngloGold Ashanti, to establish a $10 million fund to pay for environmental damages caused by their operations in the country. On Tuesday, the government ordered the Russian aluminum company Rusal to quit the country, claiming that it owed more than$750 million in taxes, royalties, and other duties owed since 2002. With a GDP per capita of $442, Guinea remains one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world.

5. Deposed President Manuel Zelaya returned to Honduras last week, sneaking into the country and hiding in the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa. Honduran security forces used water cannons and tear gas to dispurse crowds which had gathered outside the embassy in support of Zelaya. The Brazilian government has called on the international community to do more to support Zelaya’s return. Most of the international community has refused to recognize the new government and international assistance from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund has been suspended. Speaking before the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday, Brazlian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva said, “The international community demands that Mr Zelaya return immediately to the presidency of his country and must be alert to ensure the inviolability of Brazil’s diplomatic mission in the capital of Honduras.”

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It’s been a weekend of high-profile political resignations in the United States and China. On Sunday Morning, President Barack Obama’s top environmental policy adviser, Van Jones, reigned after it became public he had signed a petition alleging U.S. government involvement in the September 11th attacks. Jones had also been a key player in the Color of Change group, which has spent considerable money trying to influence the tenor of the health care debate in the United States. His resignation comes at a poor time for the administration, which is simultaneously trying to salvage passage of health insurance reform legislation in the U.S. Congress, address the ongoing economic downturn, and beginning to consider efforts to address climate change and green jobs, Jones’ area of expertise.

On Saturday, the Chinese government fired the top party official in Urumqi, where ethnic unrest has been raging between ethnic Uighurs and the majority Han. Li Zhi, the Chinese Community Party Secretary for the city of Urumqi, was replaced by Zhu Jailun, who had previously served as the head of the regional law-and-order committee. Li’s firing has also raised speculation that regional party boss, Wang Lequan, may also be forced from office. In firing Li, the Chinese government is hoping to quell unrest and prevent another outbreak of violence like that of July, when almost 200 people were killed in ethnic violence.

And on Friday, the head of Google’s China operations, Lee Kai-Fu, resigned. Lee was responsible for the launch of Google.cn, Google’s Chinese-language search engine. But Google’s operations in China have been marred by tensions with the Chinese government and debates over the degree to which the company should allow the Chinese government to censor search results. Lee’s resignation came amid a new round of tensions, with some inside Google arguing that the company should reconsider its efforts to break into the Chinese market.

In other news from the last week:

1. The G20 concluded two days of meetings in London on Saturday with a preliminary outline for tougher regulations on financial institutions. While the final statement stopped short of imposing limits on financial bonuses, it would increase the size of capital reserves and require the development of “living wills” for banks, and require that banks retain a portion of loans they sell as asset-backed securities. But the G20 avoided dealing with some of the most controversial elements of banking reform, choosing instead to forward those issues to the Financial Stability Board, an institution comprised of central bank governors and treasury secretaries from around the world. 

2. The situation in Afghanistan continues to be marred by uncertainty. On Friday, a NATO airstrike against two fuel tankers hijacked by the Taliban killed an estimated 90 people, nearly all of whom were civilians, according to local village elders. The airstrike provoked an angry response among Afghans, and represented yet another setback for the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. On Sunday it became apparent that the NATO airstrike was ordered by German commanders on the ground, a fact which will likely play an important role in upcoming German elections. The European Union issued a statement criticizing the airstrike on Saturday, one day before EU foreign ministers were scheduled to meet to consider efforts to improve stabilization efforts in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, results from the Afghan election continue to trickle in. By Sunday, the Independent Electoral Commission had tabulated returns from just almost ¾ of country’s polling stations. So far, incumbent President Hamid Karzai leads his closest challenger, Abdullah Abdullah 48.6% to 31.7%. Under Afghan law, the winner must receive an absolute majority of votes cast, so if Karzai is unable to secure at least 50% of the vote, a runoff election would be held in October. But accusations of voting rigging continue to be raised, particularly by Abdullah, who contends that the vote was characterized by widespread fraud. The IEC announced that it had excluded an unknown number of votes from 447 polling stations in which suspicious returns had been found. But the scope of electoral fraud remains unknown.

3. The World Trade Organization issued its preliminary ruling in the U.S. dispute against EU assistance to aircraft manufacturer Airbus. Although the report is still confidential and the final report will not be issued for several months, the WTO panel found that some of the estimated €3 billion offered by the EU to Airbus was an unfair subsidy. Nevertheless, both sides are claiming victory. The WTO panel dismissed 70% of the U.S. claims against the EU and several of its member states, including France, Germany, Spain, and the United Kingdom, which the U.S. had claimed offered as much as $15 billion in illegal loans since the 1970s. Although the United States is celebrating the decision, the European Union is withholding its formal reaction until its case against U.S. subsidies to Boeing is resolved. In a case filed at the WTO several years ago, the European Union accused the United States of offering more than $27 billion in illegal assistance in the form of tax breaks, research contracts, and defense spending. A ruling on that case is expected within the next few months. 

4. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is moving forward with a plan to expand settlement activity in the West Bank, offering approval for the construction of hundreds of new homes. The United States government was quick to condemn the move, asserting, according to White House spokesperson Robert Gibbs, “The U.S. does not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement expansion and we urge that it stop.” Netanyahu is under pressure from rightwing member of his coalition to remove restrictions on new settlements in the West Bank. But the status of settlements in the West Bank remains a key stumbling block in negotiations between Israel and Palestine, and Israel’s decision to increase settlement activity will likely undermine hopes for progress in rekindling stalled peace talks when President Obama’s Middle East Envoy, George Mitchell, visits Israel next week.

5. Last week’s presidential elections in the West African state of Gabon sparked violence after the ruling party candidate, Ali Ben Bongo, claimed victory. Bongo’s father, Omar Bongo, had been Africa’s longest serving ruler, presiding over Gabon since 1967. Under his rule, Gabon’s oil and wood resources were used to expand his personal wealth.  At the time of his death, he was under investigation by the French government, which had identified 39 properties, 9 cars, and more than 70 bank accounts owned by the dictator in France alone. Sunday’s announcement that Ali Ben Bongo had won a plurality of the vote to win the presidency sparked unrest by the supporters of his two rivals, former interior minister Andre Mba Obame and opposition figure Pierre Mamboundou, each of whom received approximately 25 percent of the vote. Supporters of Obame and Mamboundou targeted the French embassy and facilities owned by foreign oil companies. But according to the French government, the election “took place in acceptable conditions.”

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Afghan elections took place last week, and both sides are claiming victory at the polls. President Hamid Karzai, who has led Afghanistan since the 2001 invasion which displaced the Taliban government, declared victory on Friday. Meanwhile, his main rival, Abdullah Abdullah, accused Karzai of rigging the poll but said that Karzai would not win enough votes in the first round to avoid an October runoff election. Voter turnout in the election had declined sharply from the previous presidential elections, amid accusations of voter fraud and threats by the Taliban to cut off any fingers marked with the indelible purple ink identifying voters. The election is an important component of President Barack Obama’s strategy in Afghanistan, where the United States has maintained a troop presence for more than seven years. 

In other news from the last week:

1. The Scottish government on Thursday released Abdelbaset Ali Mohamed al-Megrahi from prison, returning him to his native Libya. Al-Megrahi had been extradited from Libya to the United Kingdom in 1999 in exchange for the United Nations agreeing to drop sanctions imposed on Libya. Al-Megrahi was convicted by a Scottish jury of conspiracy for his involvement in the 1988 bombing of Pan-Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. Although sentenced to life in prison, al-Megrahi served 8 ½ years before being released on compassionate grounds on Thursday. Al-Megrahi has terminal prostate cancer. The United States condemned al-Megrahi’s release and his welcome by Libya’s President, Muammar Gaddafi.

2. Efforts to protect intellectual property gained a boost in China and the United Kingdom last week. In China, the founders and executives of Tomato Garden, a website which that provided free downloads of Microsoft Windows XP and other programs, were convicted of piracy and sentenced to 3 ½ years in prison and a fine of $146,000 each. According to Microsoft, approximately 90 percent of all software sales in China are counterfeit, costing the company an estimated $6.68 billion in sales annually. The Business Software Alliance, the leading lobbying firm for the software industry, celebrated the decision, noting that “This shows that the government [of China] is really taking action.” In the past, the United States has accused the Chinese government of not doing enough to protect intellectual property rights, going so far as to threaten suit before the World Trade Organization.

Meanwhile, the British government has begun consideration of a number of proposals intended to reduce illegal file sharing in the United Kingdom by 70 percent. The proposals under consideration now could slow the speed of internet connections for people found to be downloading protected content, and access to some sites could be blocked altogether.

3. A prolonged drought in Kenya has resulted in a 50 percent increase in the number of people requiring food aid, according to a report released by the World Food Programme. The report also notes that some regions of the country are suffering from shortages of power and water. Although triggered by the ongoing drought, the country’s weak coalition government faces widespread popular discontent as a result of its inability to carry out much needed political and economic reform.

4. Despite some positive developments over the past several weeks in the United States, Germany, and elsewhere, the global economic crisis continues. On Thursday, the government of Mexico announced the economy shrank by a record 10.3 percent in the second quarter of this year, the fastest rate ever for the country. The global economic crisis has affected Mexico particularly had, as the country has been impacted by the U.S. recession, declining oil revenues, and the H1N1 swine flu virus which decimated the country’s tourism industry.

5. A series of bomb attacks killed almost 100 and wounded almost 500 people in Baghdad on Wednesday. The attacks, which mark the deadliest day since the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the city in June, targeted two central locations and the heavily fortified Green Zone, where the U.S. embassy and many Iraqi government buildings are located. Although no one has claimed responsibility for the attacks, they nevertheless illustrate the challenges facing the Iraqi government.

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With the Congress in recess, the U.S. political scene has been dominated by coverage of town hall debates over health care reform. In the debate, the British National Health System (NHS) has been trotted out as representative of the dangers of government-run health care, charges to which the British government has responded. The Financial Times on Friday offered a balanced comparison of the U.S. and British health care systems, which debunks the selective use of statistics in the current debate.

In news from outside the U.S. health care debate last week:

1. The Taliban has stepped up attacks in Afghanistan ahead of nation-wide elections scheduled for Thursday. On Saturday, the Taliban launched a suicide bomb attack against NATO’s heavily fortified Afghanistan headquarters in Kabul, killing eight and wounding nearly 100 people. With observers already worried about the ability of the Afghan government and international elections monitors to conduct a nation-wide poll in the country, observers fear that the Taliban may attempt to disrupt the elections. The relative period of peace which had preceded Saturday’s attack had led some to believe that the Taliban would allow the elections to take place.

Thursday’s poll will pit incumbent President Hamid Karzai against former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah. Although many observers believed Karzai’s campaign enjoyed an insurmountable advantage, Abdullah’s campaign has managed to close the gap, and some are now forecasting the need for a run-off election in October. A runoff would be necessary if neither candidate manages to secure an absolute majority of the vote.
 
2. Palestinian authorities in Gaza engaged in a series of small battles against Jund Ansar Allah, on Friday. The shootouts resulted in at least 13 deaths and dozens wounded. The battles represented the latest—and perhaps most serious—challenge to the Hamas-led government in Gaza. Jund Ansar Allah is one of several small extremist groups pushing for the introduction of strict Sharia law in Gaza. Jund Ansar Allah, which claims ties to al-Qaeda, had labeled Gaza an Islamic emirate subject to theocratic law, a claim which Hamas rejects. For its part, the Hamas government has dismissed challenges to its leadership as “Zionist propaganda” sponsored by the Israeli government.

3. The French Minister for Urban Regeneration, Fadela Amara, sparked a national debate last week when she called for a nation-wide ban on wearing the burka in France. Amara, a French national of Algerian decent, said that the burka represents “the oppression of women, their enslavement, their humiliation.” Banning the burka, she said, must be part of a broader effort to welcome moderate Islam while fighting the “gangrene, the cancer of radical Islam which completely distorts the message of Islam.” Amara’s comments are part of a broader debate in France. The national parliament in July established a committee to determine whether the wearing of the burka is “compatible with France’s republican tradition of equality between men and women,” and French President Nicolas Sarkozy in June said the burka “will not be welcome on the territory of the republic.” An estimated 5-10 percent of the French population is Muslim, though only a few thousand wear the burka.

4. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak last week attempted to re-open talks with North Korea, offering to negotiate troop reductions along the border between the two countries. The border between North and South Korea is among the most militarized in the world, with more than one million troops, including 30,000 U.S. troops, based in the area. However, in his offer, Lee reiterated the South Korean position that a comprehensive peace deal between the two countries would be predicated on North Korea abandoning its nuclear efforts, a proposition with the North has consistently rejected in the past.

5. Continuing her Africa tour with visits to Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo last week, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke out on several of the continent’s hot spots. Last week, she urged political reconciliation in Kenya and offered support for Somali efforts to fight piracy and Islamic extremism, During her tour, she has not shied away from provoking controversy. In Nigeria, she criticized “the lack of transparency and accountability [which] has eroded the legitimacy of the government.” She also called for African governments to toughen their stance on Robert Mugabe’s government in Zimbabwe.

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Economic data out this week suggests that the end of the global recession may be nearing. The most recent jobless numbers out of the United States gave economists reason to celebrate, as the unemployment rate declined by 1/10 of a point, leading to a price rally on Wall Street. Germany, which has seen a sharp decline in gross domestic product (glossary) during the global recession, benefitted from an unexpected expansion of exports—7 percent in June. While other countries continue to struggle, including Russia and Iceland, many economists now believe we are seeing the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.

In other news from the previous week:

1. The trial of dozens of people, including a French national and two Iranians employed in the British and French embassies began in Iran on Saturday. The defendants are charged with espionage and “acting against national security” by taking part in and reporting on post-election protests to Western embassies. Under Iranian law, a conviction on either charge could be punished by death. Several of the defendants have confessed, but Western governments have dismissed the charges as “baseless” and contend the confessions were made under duress. The government of Iran accuses the United States and Britain of interfering in its internal affairs by “proving financial help to Iran’s opposition.” Meanwhile, the trial of 100 opposition leaders continued last week. The opposition leaders have condemned the trials as a spectacle, but the defendants face charges punishable by death. Opposition leaders continue to assert that the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad in June’s disputed presidential election was the result of electoral fraud. Nevertheless, Ahmadi-Nejad was sworn in on Monday.

2. A power struggle inside Taliban in Pakistan emerged over the weekend after the organization’s top leader, Baitullah Mehsud, was killed in a U.S. drone strike on Friday. Mehsud was a powerful figure in the Waziristan district of Pakistan, and Pakistani officials believe he was responsible for nearly all of the major terrorist attacks in Pakistan over the past two years, including the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto and the bombing of Marriot Hotel in Islamabad in 2008. Many analysts believe that Mehsud’s death will undermine the ability of the Taliban to operate in Pakistan. Already, political infighting in the Taliban in Pakistan’s leadership has led to the murder of one top leader by another, as Waliur Rehman, a leading contender to lead the organization, killed Hakimullah Mehsud, a rival for the same position. Pakistani intelligence now believes the organization is likely to splinter into several factions, each operating independently, but collectively much weaker than the original organization.

3. Former President Bill Clinton met with North Korean President Kim Jong-il this week, securing the release of two American journalists who had been sentenced to twelve years of hard labor for illegally entering the country. The meeting, which the White House maintains was not part of its official diplomatic efforts to address the challenges posed by the North Korean regime, was the highest level contact between the two countries in more than ten years. The Obama administration also reminded North Korea that, despite Clinton’s trip, that the United States will continue its efforts to increase diplomatic and financial pressure on the North Korean state unless it abandons efforts to secure nuclear weapons.

4. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton began her Africa tour this week, meeting with Kenyan officials on Wednesday. Clinton is hoping to apply pressure on the coalition government to move forward with political reforms intended to bring grater stability to the country and to prevent another flare up of the violence which rocked the country after February’s disputed presidential election.

On Thursday, Clinton met with Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, the embattled president of Somalia. Clinton used the opportunity to reiterate U.S. support for the Ahmed government, pledging to provide more military and economic assistance as the government continues its battle against Islamist insurgents. Meanwhile, in neighboring Eritrea, President Isaias Afewerki, who is believed to be a supporter of rebel groups in Somalia, dismissed U.S. efforts, saying that it is unrealistic to try and “imposing [a government] that doesn’t exist in reality.” Somalia has long topped Foreign Policy’s list of failed states. The lack of an effective central state has also made the country a haven for pirates in the Gulf of Aden.

5. A series of cyber-attacks aimed at social networking sites last week were believed to be directed at one individual—a blogger posting under the name of Cyxymu Livejournal. The denial-of-service attacks targeted several popular sites, including Facebook, Twitter, Google, and the blogging site Livejournal. Cyxymu Livejournal is a critic of Russian policy in the Caucuses, particularly Georgia. According to some sources, the Russian government has used denial-of-service attacks in the past, targeting sites critical of the Russian government in Georgia, Estonia, and Eastern Europe. But if responsible for the most recent round of attacks, this could represent an expansion of the strategy. Leading credence to the theory is the fact that this week marked the one year anniversary of the Russian-Georgian War over the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

The major news story this week was the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to replace David Souter on the U.S. Supreme Court. If confirmed by the Senate, Sotomayor would be the first Hispanic and only the third woman appointed to the highest court in the United States. Politically, Sotomayor’s nomination was a brilliant move on the part of the Obama administration. While President Obama did not take advantage of the opportunity to appoint a liberal counter-weight to the conservative ideologues of Justice Antonin Scalia, the President did manage to force Republicans into a difficult spot. Republicans had been gearing up for a protracted fight against any Obama nomination as a way to mobilize their softening political base and increase fundraising in anticipation of next year’s Congressional elections. But in nominating Sotomayor, Obama forces Republicans to balance their desire to mobilize their base against their need to expand the base of the party to include the country’s largest and fastest growing minority group.

In news from outside Washington DC last week:

1. The United States is still struggling to figure out how to deal with the challenges posed by North Korea’s increasingly belligerent policy stance. Over the past two weeks, North Korea has engaged in a nuclear warhead test (on Monday) and several missile test fire operations. While the United States has officially downplayed the situation, describing North Korea’s actions as “nothing out of the ordinary” and dismissing it as mere “posturing,” it has discussed the need for a tougher approach. Meanwhile, the United Nations Security Council seems unlikely to moved on fresh sanctions against the North Korean regime.

2. After a week of intense fighting, the Pakistani military has regained control of Mingora, the main town in the disputed Swat valley. The government of Pakistan has been fighting against Taliban militants, who have turned to terrorist  bombings in their fight against the Pakistani government. On Thursday, for example, four bombs exploded in Peshawar, a city in north-west Pakistan. Observers are speculating that the Pakistani government may turn its attention to the Waziristan region along the Afghanistan border once operations in the Swat valley are completed. But the ability of the Pakistani government to continue to exercise sovereignty over the border regions will depend on its ability to establish governmental institutions and expand the reach of the country’s central institutions into the border regions—something the central government has not been able to do so far.

3. Political tensions within the Palestinian Authority intensified on Sunday after forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (from the Palestinian Liberation Organization faction) raided a safe house belonging to Hamas, the other party in government. The clash–the bloodiest since the Abbas government revived peace talks with Israel in 2007, resulted in six deaths, including two high-ranking Hamas officials. The attack came just four days after Abbas met with President Barack Obama in Washington, DC. Obama encouraged Abbas to improve his efforts to fulfill his obligations under the road map for peace, including maintaining law and order in the West Bank. Observers believe this attack was part of that effort, intended to demonstrate to the United States that the Palestinian Authority is following through on its promises.

4. Fighting in the Niger River Delta region continued over the past week, as the government of Nigeria continued its attacks on militants in the region. The government is hoping to reopen oil wells in the Ogoniland region. But observers fear that the government’s increasingly militarized efforts to address the crisis may backfire. Groups in the Niger Delta region claim that they have received few benefits from the country’s oil wealth, suffering from severe environmental degradation and severe human rights violations resulting from oil production, but seeing little benefit from the industry. Militants in the region have already launched attacks against some oil production facilities, hoping to cut off production and increase the cost of operating. Activists in the United States have taken a different approach, attempting to sue in U.S. courts the multinational oil giant Royal Dutch Shell for their alleged involvement in the death of Ken Saro-Wiwa and other human rights activists in the region.

5. Oil prices reached a six-month high on Friday, trading at $66 per barrel. OPEC is projecting that oil should reach $70-$75 per barrel by the end of the year. While the fighting in the Niger Delta region certainly contributed to increasing prices, observers also believe that speculators are coming back into commodities markers, leading to price increases. In a move certainly linked to the higher prices, the government of Brazil announced that it would reopen its vast offshore oil fields to international bidders. Meanwhile, the oil giant Chevron is being sued in Ecuadorian courts, facing damage liabilities as high as $27 billion for alleged damage to the environment and human health caused by their operations in the country.