What's Obama's Afghan Plan?

By Dan Froomkin
1:15 PM ET, 05/12/2009

U.S. soldiers (including one still in boxer shorts) come under fire from the Taliban yesterday in northeastern Afghanistan. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)

President Obama still doesn't have an exit strategy for Afghanistan. The benchmarks he promised over six weeks ago are still anyone's guess.

But yesterday he certainly took some decisive action: He fired his top general there -- right in the middle of a war.

You could see this as a good sign, I guess -- as a evidence of a healthy recognition by Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates that more of the just same wasn't going to cut it in Afghanistan.

But -- especially if you consider the aforementioned lack of an exit strategy and benchmarks -- you might also see this as an indication that Obama has committed himself to a mission in Afghanistan that isn't actually achievable.

You might see evidence that Obama's decision in February to send even more troops into the region hadn't been fully thought out.

Gates announced yesterday that he had decided to replace Gen. David D. McKiernan after less than a year as the top general in Afghanistan and replace him with Lt. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, a veteran Special Operations commander, counterinsurgency expert, and protege of U.S. Central Command commander and alleged wunderkind Gen. David H. Petraeus. Gates said McChrystal will bring "new leadership" and "fresh thinking" to the war against the Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan.

But as Jonathan S. Landay writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "In a startling admission, Gates told a news conference he didn't know what new strategy and tactics would be adopted with the arrival of the new U.S. troops in the south, where violence is at the highest levels since the 2001 U.S.-led intervention.

"'The challenge that we give the new leadership (is) how do we do better? What ideas do you have? What fresh thinking do you have? Are there different ways of accomplishing our goals? How can we be more effective?' said Gates, who recently returned from Afghanistan.

"'In some ways we are learning as we go,' added Navy Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He said he hoped that McKiernan's successor, McChrystal, would 'make some recommendations about how to move forward as rapidly as possible.'"

So, does that fill you with confidence?

Ann Scott Tyson writes in The Washington Post that "senior officials said McKiernan's leadership was not bold or nimble enough to reenergize a campaign in which U.S. and other NATO troops had reached a stalemate against Taliban insurgents in some parts of Afghanistan."

She also notes: "Incidents in which U.S. forces caused high numbers of civilian casualties in Afghanistan had emerged as a major source of discomfort for Gates and Mullen during McKiernan's tenure, but officials said that was not the reason for his removal. 'McKiernan got it, and he's been much better about responding,' a senior military official said. Gates noted yesterday that civilian deaths in Afghanistan had declined 40 percent since January compared with the same period last year."

Initially, I was thinking maybe this was Obama's delayed response to the U.S. airstrikes that resulted in a tragic mass killing last week. But apparently the timing is off.

And what about the new guy? Well, Fred Kaplan writes for Slate that McChrystal "was commander of the Joint Special Operations Command, a highly secretive operation that hunted down and killed key jihadist fighters, including, most sensationally, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq.

"Last fall, Bob Woodward reported in the Washington Post that JSOC played a crucial, unsung role in the tactical success of the Iraqi 'surge.' Using techniques of what McChrystal called 'collaborative warfare,' JSOC combined intelligence intercepts with quick, precision strikes to 'eliminate' large numbers of key insurgent leaders."

And yet, Kaplan writes: "This appointment will not be without controversy. McChrystal's command also provided the personnel for Task Force 6-26, an elite unit of 1,000 special-ops forces that engaged in harsh interrogation of detainees in Camp Nama as far back as 2003. The interrogations were so harsh that five Army officers were convicted on charges of abuse. (McChrystal himself was not implicated in the excesses, but the unit's slogan, which set the tone for its practices, was 'If you don't make them bleed, they can't prosecute for it.')"

And M.J. Stephey writes for Time that McChrystal was "[s]ingled out in a March 2007 report by the Pentagon inspector general for his role in the death of ex-NFL star and U.S. soldier Pat Tillman. Though the two-year investigation cleared McChrystal of any official wrongdoing, it faulted him for failing to immediately notify Tillman's family of the military's suspicions that Tillman's death was the result of friendly fire."

Meanwhile, in a reminder of the horrors of modern warfare, Laura King writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Turbaned elders and weather-beaten farmers trekked to this provincial capital today to accept reparation payments from a government commission that concluded 140 civilians were killed in a fierce battle last week between Taliban fighters and coalition troops.

"If the figure arrived at by the commission is correct, it would make last week's fatalities in rural Farah province the worst single episode of civilian casualties since the U.S.-led invasion more than seven years ago."

Quick Takes

By Dan Froomkin
12:55 PM ET, 05/12/2009

Robert Pear writes in the New York Times: "President Obama engineered a political coup on Monday by bringing leaders of the health care industry to the White House to build momentum for his ambitious health care agenda....For the health care and insurance executives, the savings initiative helps them secure a seat at the table where many decisions about their future will be made in the next year. They also ingratiated themselves with Democrats in the White House and Congress who are moving swiftly to reshape the nation’s health care system." But, Pear writes: "If history is a guide, their commitments may not produce the promised savings. Their proposals are vague — promising, for example, to reduce both 'overuse and underuse of health care.' None of the proposals are enforceable, and none of the savings are guaranteed."

Ceci Connolly and David Hilzenrath write in The Washington Post that "the industry's promises fell well short of the White House's expansive claims...Asked whether the groups were saying Obama could count on them to reduce the growth rate of health-care spending by 1.5 percentage points annually, Robert Zirkelbach, spokesman for America's Health Insurance Plans, one of the six groups, said: 'I don't know if they can do that. What the groups have said is that they are stepping up to do whatever they can to bend the cost curve' and 'that they are committed to find cost savings in their own sector.'"

Robert Reich writes for TPM Cafe that all the reform proposals discussed yesterday have "been talked about for years. The reason none have been adopted is health providers and insurers can make more money without them. Only with a government plan that competes with private insurers, and offers Americans lower costs if the providers and insurers fail to reform themselves, will the system be genuinely reformed."

Jackie Calmes writes in the New York Times: "Struggling to find ways to pay for the president’s signature health care overhaul, the administration on Monday proposed to raise nearly $60 billion more over 10 years mostly from tightening rules for inheritance taxes affecting the wealthiest estates."

Robert Barnes and Michael D. Shear write in The Washington Post: "Justice David H. Souter's departure from the Supreme Court gives the first African American president a historic opportunity to break another barrier by appointing the first Hispanic to the nation's highest court."

James Oliphant and David G. Savage write in the Los Angeles Times: "As President Obama's search for a Supreme Court justice progresses, it appears the White House has locked in on two competing sets of nominees: those who have traditional judicial and academic backgrounds and another group that comes from what might be called the 'real world.'

Michael Slackman reports from Cairo for the New York Times: "President Obama’s decision to deliver a speech here next month has given significant encouragement to a once powerful ally that has grown increasingly frustrated over its waning regional influence and its inability to explain to its citizens why it remains committed to a Middle East peace process that has failed to produce a better life for Palestinians....Still, President Obama’s decision to address a deeply skeptical Arab audience from Cairo is fraught with potential land mines, according to political analysts, human rights advocates and government officials."

Josh Gerstein writes for Politico: "An initiative President Barack Obama launched to give the public more access to the inner workings of government is under fire for cutting the public out of the process...'This process is taking place in a black hole,' said Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC). 'I think it’s very distressing because of the subject matter.'"

William Kristol writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "Battling Barack Obama is an enterprise that offers better grounds for Republican hope than indulging in spasms of introspection or bouts of petty recrimination....Republicans should be making the case against Obama's policies now so that citizens know whom to blame next year."

Rachel L. Swarns writes in the New York Times: "On tap at the White House on Tuesday night? A poetry jam — with smooth jazz, cool verses and spoken word. The literary and musical event in the East Room will include the actor James Earl Jones, the writers Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman (who are husband and wife), the jazz singer and bassist Esperanza Spalding and the pianist Eric Lewis....The event, which is scheduled to begin at 7:45 p.m., will be shown live at www.whitehouse.gov."

Digby blogs about the faux outrage over comedian Wanda Sykes's comments about talk-show host Rush Limbaugh at the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner: "They should just get rid of these stupid events. Every year the press corps demonstrates what idiots they are. They get huffy when the joke's aimed at them, they think it's hilarious when it is crudely personal and aimed directly at the first lady, they laugh uproariously when the president jokes about not finding weapons of mass destruction but get the vapors when somebody takes aim at Rush Limbaugh. Really, it's just too ridiculous."

Mark Knoller blogs for CBS News on the identity -- and backstory -- of the guy in the Captain Hook costume who turned up in an Oval Office photo Obama showed as part of his comedy routine Saturday night.

Torture Watch

By Dan Froomkin
12:40 PM ET, 05/12/2009

Catching you up on the torture beat:

R. Jeffrey Smith wrote in Sunday's Washington Post that Senate intelligence committee investigators are looking into whether CIA interrogators working in secret prisons exceeded their instructions from the Justice Department. "The issue has attracted scrutiny because of President Obama's statement April 22 that those involved would be immune from prosecution if they 'carried out some of these operations within the four corners of legal opinions or guidance that had been provided from the White House,'" Smith writes.

Smith discloses the existence of "a classified 2005 study by the [CIA]'s lawyers of dozens of interrogation videotapes." The study, "which the Senate intelligence committee demanded to see in 2005 but did not receive until last year, assessed the legality of interrogations that occurred between April and December 2002. Its conclusions have not been disclosed, and the CIA destroyed the videotapes in late 2005."

That certainly sounds interesting.

And Smith also reports on what could be another explosive document release: "Government officials familiar with the CIA's early interrogations say the most powerful evidence of apparent excesses is contained in the 'top secret' May 7, 2004, inspector general report, based on more than 100 interviews, a review of the videotapes and 38,000 pages of documents. The full report remains closely held, although White House officials have told political allies that they intend to declassify it for public release when the debate quiets over last month's release of the Justice Department's interrogation memos.

"According to excerpts included in those memos, the inspector general's report concluded that interrogators initially used harsh techniques against some detainees who were not withholding information. Officials familiar with its contents said it also concluded that some of the techniques appeared to violate the U.N. Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, ratified by the United States in 1994.

"Although some useful information was produced, the report concluded that 'it is difficult to determine conclusively whether interrogations have provided information critical to interdicting specific imminent attacks,' according to the Justice Department's declassified summary of it."

In other words, as Greg Sargent blogs for Whorunsgov.com, the report "found no proof that torture foiled any terror plots on American soil — directly contradicting [former vice president Dick] Cheney’s claims."

Speaking of Cheney, Eugene Robinson writes in his Washington Post opinion column today: "Can't we send Dick Cheney back to Wyoming?...

"For the final act of his too-long public career, Cheney seems to have decided to become an Old Faithful of self-serving nonsense."

But Cheney's got at least one potential buyer -- right there next to Robinson on the op-ed page, where Richard Cohen pens some link-bait headlined "What if Cheney's Right?" He writes: "If even a stopped clock is right twice a day, this could be Cheney's time."

Robinson chatted with Liz Cheney about torture this morning on MSNBC.

In other news, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi -- whose torture-induced confession fueled Bush's propaganda campaign for war in Iraq, is dead.

Peter Finn writes in The Washington Post: "A former CIA high-value detainee, who provided bogus information that was cited by the Bush administration in the run-up to the Iraq war, has died in a Libyan prison, an apparent suicide, according to a Libyan newspaper....

"In their book 'Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War,' Michael Isikoff and David Corn said Libi made up the story about Iraqi training after he was beaten and subjected to a 'mock burial' by his Egyptian interrogators, who put him in a cramped box for 17 hours. Libi recanted the story after being returned to CIA custody in 2004.

"When President George W. Bush ordered the 2006 transfer to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, of high-value detainees previously held in CIA custody, Libi was pointedly missing. Human rights groups had long suspected that Libi was instead transferred to Libya, but the CIA had never confirmed where he was sent.

"'I would speculate that he was missing because he was such an embarrassment to the Bush administration,' said Tom Malinowski, the head of the Washington office of Human Rights Watch. 'He was Exhibit A in the narrative that tortured confessions contributed to the massive intelligence failure that preceded the Iraq war.'"

I wrote on April 7 that the International Red Cross report on the CIA's black sites, based on interviews with the 14 "high value" detainees transferred to Guantanamo in September 2006, also expressed "grave concerns" about what happened to all the other detainees who passed through the secret CIA prisons who we still don't know about. Libi was one of them.

Torture memo author John Yoo has a new gig. He writes in his new Philadelphia Inquirer opinion column on Sunday that empathy has no place in a Supreme Court Justice.

Philadelphia Daily News blogger Will Bunch is outraged at the Inquirer. He writes that "while promoting public discourse is a goal of newspaper commentary, it should not be the main objective. The higher calling for an American newspaper should be promoting and maintaining our sometimes fragile democracy, the very thing that Yoo and his band of torture advocates very nearly shredded in a few short years. Quite simply, by handing Yoo a regularly scheduled platform for his viewpoint, the Inquirer is telling its readers that Yoo's ideas -- especially that torture is not a crime against the very essence of America -- are acceptable."

But wait. According to former Democratic representative Harold Ford, who now makes his living as a "centrist" pundit, maybe torture's not so bad. Here he is yesterday on MSBNC's Hardball: "I think if you ask the majority of Americans if they were opposed to the water boarding of some of these high-level terrorists or those who orchestrated terrorist attacks, I think you would be hard-pressed to find many Americans, many Democrats even, who would be that outraged by it."

(Reality check: Recent polls show that, even in the absurd ticking time-bomb scenario, the public is at best evenly split on the issue. And I assure you many of us are more than outraged.)

When Ford started talking about opportunities "to gain information that would prevent the destruction of an American city," even host Chris Matthews shot back: "That's Cheney talk."

Manu Raju writes for Politico: "For Democrats pushing an investigation into potential criminal wrongdoing in the war on terrorism, the GOP now has a two-word response: Nancy Pelosi.

"Republicans say new revelations about a CIA briefing Pelosi received in 2002 have given them their best shot yet at blocking a sprawling probe into Bush administration interrogation techniques by allowing them to insist that its targets would include the speaker of the House."

But John Nichols writes for the Nation that reports that Pelosi and other Democratic leaders were at least somewhat aware of Bush's torture regime are not new -- and simply add to the arguments on behalf of a "comprehensive inquiry into potentially criminal abuses of power." Nichols writes: "Pelosi should agree to testify, thoroughly, cooperatively and under oath. George Bush, Dick Cheney and all of their aides and lawyers should be expected to do the same."

And Eric Alterman writes for the Nation: "More than eighty years ago, in his argument with Walter Lippmann about the proper role of the press in a democracy, John Dewey warned that 'a class of experts is inevitably so removed from common interests as to become a class with private interests and private knowledge.'

"It would be difficult to imagine a more telling--and disturbing--manifestation of Dewey's prediction than the current torture debate in Washington. Even after the disgraceful performance of so many armchair warriors during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, who would have dared predict the willingness, nay, eagerness, of respected journalists and pundits to argue in favor of purposeful ignorance?"

Cartoon Watch

By Dan Froomkin
9:55 AM ET, 05/12/2009

Ann Telnaes on Cheney's unwitting target, Pat Oliphant on Cheney's choice, Mike Luckovich on Cheney's refusal to leave, Jeff Danziger on the new Republican message, Matt Davies on unlikely allies in health care, Scott Stantis on Barack the blameless, Stuart Carlson on Baspock Obama, Bruce Beattie on green shoots, and John Branch on next year's correspondents' dinner.

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