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Weekly News Roundup: Obama Touches Down in Afghanistan, Diplomatic Cables Hit the Internet

written by Matt Elliott
on December 03, 2010

President Obama made a surprise trip to Afghanistan today, landing at Bagram Air Base after a 13-hour flight. According to The New York Times, he'll spend only a few hours on the ground, where he'll speak with troops of the 101st Airborne Division and other units, awarding Purple Hearts to the wounded soldiers and thanking all of the troops for their service, as they prepare to spend the holidays in a war zone, far from friends and family. Obama will also consult with his commanding officer in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus, and he will speak via phone to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, after bad weather and high winds prevented travel to Kabul by helicopter. Obama's visit comes on the heels of the latest WikiLeaks dump, which "laid out a devastating portrait of a society awash in corruption and graft that has been fostered by Mr. Karzai's own government. The cables questioned whether Mr. Karzai will ever be 'a responsible partner' and depicted him as 'erratic' and 'indecisive and unprepared.'"

Karzai has his own complaints, namely NATO's recent escalation of the war. The Washington Post reports the increased air attacks that began this past summer have continued through November. While they are viewed by the military as a necessary component to secure the country, the air strikes are viewed differently by Afghans. For instance, take this quote from a military spokesperson:

Civilian deaths are slightly down this year despite an enormous increase in the number of weapons dropped and sorties run. The increase in air operations are often in support of troops on the ground who are pushing into historic insurgent safe havens - dangerous operations, very tough fighting that is intended to push them aside and protect the civilian population.

And contrast it with this quote from Mohammad Rahman Danish, a former district chief in eastern Afghanistan, who says the bombings take place around the clock:

Unfortunately there has been an increase in Pech Valley and other parts of Kunar as well. The people in the area are very angry at both sides. The Taliban are coming and influencing the residents and the Americans are conducting operations. The local people are suffering. Houses are destroyed. The land is destroyed in the operations. This is the reality.

The situation isn't expected to improve anytime soon. The Red Cross has opened five new offices in Afghanistan since 2009 to keep up with the increased violence, and it expects Afghanistan to be its biggest budget item in 2011.

A new weapon in the fight against IEDs? Math. Listen to this Morning Edition story on NPR about the so-called warrior mathematician, who employs social network analysis "to identify the key players in the groups responsible for the bombs." Kathleen Carley, professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, said, "If you're trying to defeat IEDs, what you're talking about is understanding that whole process — who is involved, how they are connected to each other — so that you can figure out where the best place is to intervene."

The fight in Afghanistan isn't just against Taliban insurgents and IEDs, but also against widespread government corruption. In addition to the many diplomatic embarrassments included the latest batch of classified documents published by WikiLeaks, the documents showed corruption at all levels of the Afghan government. In fact, it found only one honest member in Karzai's cabinet. Take a bow, agriculture minister, Asif Rahimi! For more on the widespread corruption in Afghanistan, read this article from The New York Times.

The diplomatic cables that WikiLeaks published also showed problems with the nascent Iraqi government, saying that "Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki fired hundreds of intelligence and security officials to replace them with less capable political loyalists." The cables also showed that "De-Baathification abuses have not been limited to government ministries. In January, hundreds of Iraqi politicians — mostly members of Sunni political parties competing with Maliki's party — were banned from running for office for their alleged ties to the Baath party."

In closing, two reminders:

1. Tomororow, December 4, is the deadline for sending packages via the U.S. Postal Service to Afghanistan and Iraq and have them arrive by Christmas.

2. Military families can receive a $10 call credit from Google Voice, but they must sign up by December 22. The $10 credit is good for roughly 30 minutes of call time to Afghanistan and 60 minutes to Iraq.

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