News & Current Affairs

August 27, 2008

Clinton urges party to back Obama

Clinton urges party to back Obama

Hillary Clinton urges her supporters to get behind Barack Obama

Hillary Clinton has called on Democrats to unite behind Barack Obama as the party’s presidential candidate, saying she was his “proud supporter”.

Speaking at the party’s nominating convention, Mrs Clinton said they could not afford to lose to the Republicans.

“Whether you voted for me or voted for Barack, the time is now to unite as a single party with a single purpose.”

Mr Obama, who beat Mrs Clinton in the primary race, will formally accept the party’s nomination on Thursday night.

He will stand against Republican John McCain in the presidential election on 4 November.

Mrs Clinton, who was given a standing ovation as she took the stage, thanked those who supported her through her campaign but said Mr Obama was now “my candidate”.

The party could not afford “to see another Republican in the White House squander the promise of our country and the hopes of our people”, she said.

“We are on the same team and none of us can sit on the sidelines,” she said.

She described Mr McCain as “my colleague and my friend” but went on to attack his record and links with President George W Bush.

“We don’t need four more years of the last eight years,” she said.

‘Deep faith’

Giving the convention’s keynote speech beforehand, ex-Virginia Governor Mark Warner said Mr Obama was the leader the US needed in the “race for the future”.

“We need a president who understands the world today, the future we seek, and the change we need,” he said.

We need a President who understands the world today, the future we seek, and the change we need
Mark Warner
Former Governor of Virginia

Key excerpts: Mark Warner

“We need Barack Obama as the next president of the United States.”

He also attacked Republican presidential contender John McCain as promising “more of the same” as the Bush administration.

Mr Warner is running for a Senate seat in Virginia, targeted as an important swing state by the Democrats in the November elections.

He commented on the daunting prospect of speaking after the last convention keynote speaker – Mr Obama in 2004 – and before Mrs Clinton in 2008, but said Americans should let hope replace fear.

“Tonight, looking out at all of you, and with a deep faith in the character and resolve of the American people, I am more confident than ever that we will win that race and make the future ours,” he concluded.

Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean sought earlier to dampen criticism that the convention so far had been too soft on Mr McCain, saying there was still “plenty of time” for tough-talking.

He also played down suggestions of a rift between supporters of Mr Obama and Mrs Clinton, saying there was “not a unity problem”.

Personal tensions

Mrs Clinton had already thrown her political weight behind Mr Obama and dismissed suggestions that the party is divided.
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But opinion polls had indicated that despite her repeated statements of support for Mr Obama, many of her supporters said they would rather vote for Mr McCain than for her former rival.

The BBC’s Jamie Coomarasamy, in Denver, says her many supporters seem divided between those who are, however reluctantly, supporting Mr Obama and those who say they may vote for Senator McCain.

Terry McAuliffe, who was the chairman of Mrs Clinton’s campaign, told the BBC: “Every single night we need to be laying out why John McCain’s bad for America.
John McCain speaks to veterans in Phoenix, Arizona, 26 Aug 2008
Some Democrats feel the party needs to focus its attack on Mr McCain

“Bush is the worst president in our nation’s history. We need to remind people every single day, and John McCain is nothing but Bush’s third term.”

A poll from CNN/Opinion Research Corp suggests that American voters are evenly divided between Mr Obama and Mr McCain, at 47% each.

Mr McCain is due to be nominated next week at the Republican Party’s convention in Minneapolis-St Paul, Minnesota.

He campaigned in Arizona on Tuesday, telling veterans that Mr Obama’s opposition to the Iraq war and preference for multilateral diplomacy could undermine US leadership in the world.

On the attack

While the first night of the convention was devoted to fleshing out the life story of Barack Obama, Tuesday was billed as “Renewing America’s Promise” and featured political heavyweights, including state governors and prominent House and Senate leaders.

Iowa Governor Chet Culver used his time on the convention floor to suggest big oil firms were backing Mr McCain, “bankrolling his campaign and gambling with our future”.

Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, a Clinton supporter, also attacked Mr McCain’s energy policy, suggesting he was more interested in giving tax cuts to oil firms than in safeguarding the environment.

CONVENTION AGENDA
Tuesday: Hillary Clinton speech; keynote speech by former Virginia governor Mark Warner
Wednesday: Speeches by Bill Clinton and Joe Biden; vote to confirm Barack Obama as party’s candidate
Thursday: Barack Obama to accept nomination with speech in stadium

Convention programme
Voters’ views on the convention
Convention diary

Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy said: “John McCain offers four more years of the same Bush-Cheney policies that have failed us.”

Mrs Clinton’s husband, former President Bill Clinton, takes the stage on Wednesday night, when Mr Obama is to be formally nominated.

Democratic officials are said to have brokered a deal between the Obama and Clinton camps for the nomination that is meant to appease die-hard Clinton supporters.

Some states would be allowed to cast votes for both Mr Obama and Mrs Clinton on Wednesday before the roll call is ended with the unanimous nomination of Barack Obama.

The first African-American to be nominated as a US presidential candidate, he makes his appearance on the closing night of the conference, when he is to address a crowd of an expected 80,000 people at a sports stadium.

After being attacked as a “celebrity” by the McCain campaign, the Democrats used the opening night of the convention to try to show the Illinois senator as a family man with normal concerns.

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August 25, 2008

Obama sets out to sell his vision

Obama sets out to sell his vision

Barack Obama has a hard act to follow at this convention: himself.

Barack Obama speaks in Wisconsin

Barack Obama faces a career-defining moment

Four years ago, when Democrats gathered for their national convention in Boston to nominate John Kerry, the then-US Senate candidate made a much-lauded, career-defining speech. His message of a unified America, coming from the mouth of a young, mixed-race politician, marked the effective launch of the history-making Obama phenomenon.

It also brings a level of expectation ahead of his speech on Thursday, which the last Democratic candidate, who went on to become president, did not have to face.

When nominee Bill Clinton spoke at the 1992 Convention in New York, it was four years after he had made a convention speech that was widely seen (including by Clinton, himself) as rather long-winded and boring.

He did not repeat his mistake. With his “I still believe in a place called Hope” speech, the Arkansas governor defined himself in a way that resonated with the country at large.

Weight of history

Barack Obama needs to do something similar. With opinion polls placing him in a tight race with Republican John McCain and suggesting that sections of the public still do not have a clear impression of who he is, his goal is to come out of the week having defined himself as someone whom Americans can feel comfortable about as a leader.

He needs to sell his vision, his experience and his unconventional background.

Pepsi Center, Denver

Mr Obama must unite the Democrats behind his campaign

He will be selling that vision of himself on an auspicious date: the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr’s “I have a dream” speech.

But, while that may add to the weight of history on his shoulders, the location of his speech represents a break with history.

Obama will not accept the nomination in the Convention Hall, but at the 70,000-seater Invesco Field, home of the Denver Broncos Football team. This will provide a unique spectacle, but it also presents a certain danger of perception for a candidate who – since securing the Democratic nomination in June – has faced accusations of being too presumptuous about his chances of winning the November election.

Clinton tensions

And while the 1992 Clinton experience offers him a something of a blueprint for success, the 2008 Clinton presence, on the other hand, presents him with potential pitfalls.

Both Hillary and Bill Clinton will be speaking at the Convention. Their performances – on Tuesday and Wednesday respectively – will be watched closely for signs of party disunity, that could harm not only Barack Obama’s chances, but those of Democrats running for Congress in November.

Despite a joint appearance with Senator Obama in Unity, New Hampshire earlier this summer, Hillary Clinton is still dogged by questions about her level of support for the man who narrowly beat her to the nomination. Many of her supporters are still unhappy about the manner of her defeat. There is also concern that she was not seriously considered for the position of running mate, which Senator Joe Biden has secured.

Bill Clinton, file picture

Observers will be closely watching Bill Clinton’s mood

By allowing Senator Clinton’s delegates to participate in a formal nominating roll call vote – recognising the historical nature of her campaign – the Obama team hopes to defuse some of the remaining tensions and shore up the support of the millions who voted for the former First Lady. Neither outcome is a foregone conclusion.

John McCain’s campaign is doing its mischievous best to stir things up: releasing an advert, showing Hillary Clinton asking some of the same questions about Barack Obama’s experience and judgment during the primary campaign which they are asking now.

But, perhaps, it is Bill Clinton’s speech that will be the most closely dissected; both for its words and for the body language of the man delivering it. By his silence, the former president has given the impression that he is still sulking about Obama’s victory over his wife.

Many Convention-goers will be looking for him to swallow his pride and give the sort of full-throated endorsement of the party’s nominee, that will sway Democrats flirting with John McCain, and help to repair some of the damage done to President Clinton’s own reputation during the primaries.

As he effectively hands over the role of party leader to a younger man, he can still play the role of party healer.

How to measure the success of this? The time-honoured tradition has been to look at the “convention bounce” – the boost in the opinion polls which a candidate gains from his moment engulfed in balloons and ticker tape. Bill Clinton, for example, got one in 1992 and never relinquished his lead over George H W Bush.

Time is not Barack Obama’s side, though. No sooner has the Democratic Convention finished, than the Republicans meet in St Paul, Minnesota.

So the onus is on Senator Obama to make the most of his time in the spotlight, before the spotlight quickly turns to his Republican rival, John McCain.

August 23, 2008

Obama picks Biden as running-mate

Obama picks Biden as running-mate

File image of John McCain with Barack Obama, August 2007

Mr Obama could benefit from Biden’s foreign policy clout, analysts say

US Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama has announced that Joe Biden will be his running mate in November’s election.

Mr Obama’s choice, confirmed on his website, comes ahead of next week’s Democratic Party convention.

Mr Biden, a 65-year-old veteran lawmaker, has over three decades of Senate experience and is highly respected on foreign policy issues.

Republican contender John McCain could announce his choice next week.

Speculation is mounting that Senator McCain may name his running mate on 29 August, his 72nd birthday and a day after the Democrats wrap up their convention.

‘Impressive record’

The announcement came shortly after several US media networks began reporting that Mr Biden had been chosen.

“Barack has chosen Joe Biden to be his running mate,” a brief statement on Mr Obama’s campaign website said.

Senator Joe Biden (file image)

“Joe Biden brings extensive foreign policy experience, an impressive record of collaborating across party lines, and a direct approach to getting the job done,” it said.

The two men are expected to appear together at a rally in Springfield, Illinois, later in the day.

Mr Biden has represented the state of Delaware in the US Senate since 1972.

He is known as a strong orator and chairs the Foreign Relations Committee – something analysts say would balance Mr Obama’s self-confessed lack of foreign policy experience.

The son of a car salesman, he is also expected to appeal to the blue collar workers with whom Mr Obama has struggled to connect.

OFFICE OF THE VICE-PRESIDENT
Second-highest executive officer in the United States
Assumes the top role if the president cannot continue in office
One of four statutory members of the National Security Council

The senator ran against Mr Obama and Senator Hillary Clinton for the presidential nomination but dropped out after failing to gain enough support.

The McCain camp called the choice of Mr Biden an admission by Barack Obama that he was not ready to be president.

“Biden has denounced Barack Obama’s poor foreign policy judgement and has strongly argued in his own words what Americans are quickly realising – that Barack Obama is not ready to be president,” McCain campaign spokesman Ben Porritt said in a statement.

John McCain has reportedly not yet settled on a running mate.

Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney are reported to be under serious consideration for the role.

August 22, 2008

Obama set to reveal running-mate

Obama set to reveal running-mate

Barack Obama on the campaign trail on 21 August in Chester, Virginia

Speculation has been rife about who will share Mr Obama’s platform

US Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama is expected to reveal his choice of vice-presidential running mate within hours.

He has told journalists he has made his decision, which will be revealed by text message to the party’s senators and supporters, and journalists.

Democrats gather for their party convention in Denver on Monday.

Mr Obama and his running mate are set to make their first campaign appearance together in Illinois, on Saturday.

“I’ve made the selection, that’s all you’re gonna get,” Mr Obama told reporters while campaigning in Virginia on Thursday.

Text alert

In an interview with USA Today newspaper, the Illinois senator said he had selected a running mate who was independent and would challenge him in the White House.

JUSTIN WEBB’S AMERICA
Hang on, I think that’s a text coming in

He added that he had opted for someone who would help him strengthen the economy, and was also ready to act as president.

But Mr Obama gave no clue as to whether he had notified his preferred running mate yet.

It is possible the Obama camp might keep the name of the vice-presidential selection a secret until just before the appearance in Springfield on Saturday but, realistically, that seems unlikely, says the BBC’s North America editor, Justin Webb.

The expectation is that during the course of Friday a text message will be received by those who have signed up for it, revealing the name.

Surprise in store?

The conventional wisdom is that vice-presidential candidates do not swing elections, our editor reports.

John McCain, file pic

But Mr Obama’s choice is interesting because it will reveal a little more about the style of the man and how willing he is to be adventurous.

Most commentators believe he will play it safe, opting for a governor, perhaps Tim Kaine of Virginia, or a political veteran like Senator Joe Biden.

Some Democrats are hoping he has a surprise up his sleeve – a Hillary Clinton or an Al Gore.

Mr Obama’s rival, Republican presidential hopeful John McCain, has reportedly not settled on a running mate.

Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney are reported to be under serious consideration for the role.

August 17, 2008

US rivals try to woo Christians

US rivals try to woo Christians

John McCain (left), Rick Warren (centre) and Barack Obama

The pair have contrasting approaches to discussing their faith

US presidential hopefuls John McCain and Barack Obama have been trying to woo Christian voters at a televised religious forum in California.

The two men shared a stage for the first time since securing nomination.

Speaking first, Mr Obama defended his support for abortion and same-sex civil unions, but said marriage should only be between a man and a woman.

Republican John McCain affirmed he was pro-life and that he strongly supported preserving the status of marriage.

The forum, hosted by US pastor Rick Warren, was the senators’ last joint appearance before their official nomination as the candidates for November’s presidential election at their respective party conventions in a few weeks.

Three debates are scheduled to take place after the Democrat and Republican conventions.

Moral failure

Mr Warren is best known for building Saddleback Church into a 20,000-member “mega-church” in Lake Forest, southern California, and for writing The Purpose-Driven Life.

At the beginning of the first hour-long interview, Mr Obama told the pastor that America’s greatest moral failure was its insufficient help to the disadvantaged.

The Democratic candidate noted that the Bible had quoted Jesus as saying: “Whatever you do for the least of my brothers, you do for me.”

He said the maxim should apply to victims of poverty, sexism and racism.

Mr Obama also reaffirmed his belief that marriage should only be a “union between a man and a woman”, although he also defended his support for same-sex civil unions and for the granting of similar rights to same-sex partners.

If he were president, he said he would not support a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage because the issue was one for state governments to decide.

On abortion, Mr Obama stressed he remained pro-choice and that he believed in the “Roe vs Wade” Supreme Court ruling supporting it.

However, he did say that he would seek to reduce the number of late-term abortions and unwanted pregnancies.

‘Pro-life president’

Mr McCain was asked similar questions by Mr Warren. When asked about America’s greatest moral shortcoming, he responded by saying that its citizens had failed to “devote ourselves to causes greater than our self-interests”.

Appearing to criticize President George W Bush, Mr McCain said that after 11 September 2001 there should have been a push to encourage people to join the army, Peace Corps and other voluntary organizations, rather than an official call to “go shopping”.

When asked about his stance on abortion, the Republican candidate declared he opposed abortion “from the moment of conception”.

“I will be a pro-life president and this presidency will have pro-life policies. That’s my commitment to you,” he said to applause.

Mr McCain also said he supported preserving “the unique status of marriage between a man and a woman” and that he was against the decision taken in some states to allow same-sex marriages.

“That doesn’t mean people can’t enter into legal agreements. That doesn’t mean that they don’t have the right of all citizens,” he said.

Conservative Christians form about one-quarter of the US electorate. They largely support the Republican Party, but have not shown great enthusiasm for Mr McCain.

He identifies himself as Baptist and has made a strong appeal to social conservatives and evangelical Christians during his campaign.

But he rarely discusses his faith. Earlier this year he said: “I’m unashamed and unembarrassed about my deep faith in God. But I do not obviously try to impose my views on others.”

The Illinois senator, a Christian, has made a point of discussing his religion on the campaign trail and has been courting religious voters with a presence on Christian radio and blogs, and other events.


Are you are Christian voter in the US? Which candidate has impressed you the most? Send us your views and experiences

August 16, 2008

Browne sues McCain over song use

Browne sues McCain over song use

Jackson Browne

Browne is seeking more than $75,000 in damages

Singer Jackson Browne is suing US Republican presidential candidate John McCain for using one of his songs without permission.

Browne, 59, claims the use of hit song Running on Empty in an advert was an infringement of copyright and will lead people to conclude he endorses McCain.

The singer is seeking more than $75,000 (£40,000) in damages.

Robert Bennett, chairman of the Ohio Republican party, called the legal action a “big to-do about nothing”.

The action, which also names the Ohio and national Republican committees, says Browne is a lifelong liberal who is well-known for being “an advocate for social and environmental justice”.

Campaign finance records reveal that the singer contributed $2,300 (£1,240) to Obama’s presidential campaign last year.

Permanent injunction

The track was used in an advert which mocks Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama “for suggesting that the country conserve gas through proper tyre inflation”.

The advert was pulled following Browne’s objection.

Browne is also seeking a permanent injunction prohibiting the use of Running on Empty in any form by the McCain campaign.

McCain spokesman Brian Rogers claims the advert was not a product of the Republican presidential candidate’s campaign.

But Browne’s action contends that the Ohio Republican party released the advert on behalf of McCain and the Republican National Committee.

Browne released the song Running on Empty – and an album by the same name – in 1977.

The US presidential election takes place on 4 November.

August 9, 2008

Clinton says she wants Obama to win White House

Clinton says she wants Obama to win White House

LAS VEGAS – Hillary Rodham Clinton told an exuberant crowd Friday she wants Barack Obama to win the White House, even though he dashed her own presidential dreams — and she wants her supporters to vote that way, too.

“Anyone who voted for me or caucused for me has so much more in common with Sen. Obama than Sen. McCain,” Clinton told her cheering audience in the Las Vegas suburb of Henderson. “Remember who we were fighting for in my campaign.”

Though she has endorsed her former rival, the speech was Clinton’s first appearance at a rally for Obama since the two appeared together in Unity, N.H., in June.

In another sign of growing detente between the House of Clinton and the House of Obama, Democrats said Bill Clinton would speak on the third night of this month’s national convention in Denver.

The Clinton’s’ efforts on Obama’s behalf may ease worries within the party that bad feelings from the long primary battle might erupt at the convention.

She said Friday that “we may have started on two separate paths, but we are on one journey now.” She said her long primary campaign against the Illinois senator showed her “his passion, his determination, his grace and his grit.”

The crowd let her know they still held her in high regard. They cheered Obama’s name and waved his campaign signs, but no mention of him won as loud a roar as Clinton’s introduction.

Still, she kept her focus on making his case, mentioning key Democratic issues where Obama and McCain would differ — U.S. Supreme Court nominations and health care reform, for example.

She noted Democrats have had difficultly reaching the White House recently and said Obama would need a surge in turnout — and registration — to win in November.

“Which is why Sen. Obama needs all of us, he needs us working for him,” she said.

Some of her backers have complained loudly about the way the only female candidate was treated during the primaries. And Clinton supporters have succeeded in getting language into the draft of the Democratic Party platform that says, “We believe that standing up for our country means standing up against sexism and all intolerance. Demeaning portrayals of women cheapen our debates, dampen the dreams of our daughters and deny us the contributions of too many. Responsibility lies with us all.”

The platform committee will be reviewing the draft Saturday in Pittsburgh.

After weeks of private talks about exactly what the Clintons will do at the national convention, no decision has been reached on whether delegates will actually hold a roll call vote that includes her candidacy.

Such a move could disrupt or distract from the point of the convention — showing a unified party raring to return a Democrat to the White House.

On the other hand, she has suggested that letting her supporters whoop and holler for her might provide a catharsis and help the party move on.

“It’s as old as, you know, Greek drama,” Sen. Clinton told supporters in a recent speech to a private gathering, which was later posted on the Web.

In this particular drama, the Clinton’s insist they are doing everything they can to get her supporters on board with Obama. Any reluctance, she says, is not hers, but comes from those who committed to her historic bid and are still unhappy that she did not prevail.

Clinton did not mention any convention disputes in her remarks Friday. She later told reporters the two campaigns were still in negotiations.

“We’re going to have a very clear message about how the campaign will cooperate and how the convention will be conducted when it’s appropriate to make that announcement,” she said.

Clinton and Obama may be on the same team, but in the past week they seemed to be running in different directions.

In political terms, one candidate’s catharsis is another’s car wreck. Conventions at which the party appears divided can prove disastrous to the nominee’s chances in the general election.

Obama told reporters Thursday he thought the negotiations with Clinton aides had gone “seamlessly,” but he also rejected the notion that there might be a need for emotional release on the part of some Democrats.

“I don’t think we’re looking for catharsis,” said Obama. “I think what we’re looking for is energy and excitement.”

Giving both Clintons big speeches at the convention may help generate excitement, but it also gives them a lot of attention at a gathering that’s supposed to be about the nominee, Obama.

And Bill Clinton in particular has at times seemed grudging in his praise of the man who stopped his wife’s able ascent.

Asked earlier this week if Obama was ready to be president, Clinton gave a philosophical, not political answer.

“You could argue that no one’s ever ready to be president. I mean, I certainly learned a lot about the job in the first year. You could argue that even if you’ve been vice president for eight years that no one can ever be fully ready for the pressures of the office and that everyone learns something, and something different. You could argue that,” Clinton said.

The Clinton’s argued through much of the primary that she, a former first lady, was ready to be president on “Day One,” suggesting Obama was not.

The Obama campaign is pretty tired of that argument, particularly since it has become a key refrain of Republican John McCain.

August 8, 2008

American deaths in Afghanistan war reach 500

American deaths in Afghanistan war reach 500

KABUL, Afghanistan – The deadliest three months for American forces in Afghanistan have pushed the U.S. death toll to at least 500, forcing a war long overshadowed by Iraq back into the headlines.

Larger, more sophisticated militant attacks have also caused a sharp rise in Afghan civilian deaths — at least 472 in the first seven months of the year, most in suicide bombings, according to an Associated Press count.

In all, at least 600 Afghan civilians were killed from January through July, a 30 percent increase from the same period last year, according to AP figures compiled from coalition and Afghan officials. That includes at least 128 killed by U.S. or NATO forces.

There are about 33,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the highest since the war began, meaning more troops than ever are patrolling this country’s mountainous terrain and exposed to ambushes and roadside bombs.

The U.S. military suffered 65 deaths in May, June and July, by far the deadliest three-month period in Afghanistan since the war began in 2001. The previous deadliest three-month period was in the spring of 2005, with 45 U.S. deaths.

In July, more U.S. troops died in Afghanistan than in Iraq for the month, for the first time since the Iraq war started in 2003. In all, 92 U.S. troops have died in Afghanistan this year, a pace that would surpass last year’s death toll of 111.

The spike in violence is forcing U.S. leaders, including the presidential candidates, to call for still more troops here.

More than ever, the U.S. government recognizes the situation Afghanistan “is serious and needs to be dealt with,” said Seth Jones, an Afghanistan expert at the RAND Corp., a Washington-based think tank that often does studies for the Pentagon.

“I think it is an important step that … the gravity of the situation has been recognized and that there are some steps in place to turn the tide in Afghanistan,” he said. “Whether that is successful or not is of course an open question.”

Overall, at least 500 U.S. service members have died in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Qatar and United Arab Emirates in support of the Afghan mission, according to an AP analysis based on Defense Department press releases.

“In terms of milestones, it’s important to point out that no casualty is more significant than any other,” said Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Mark Wright. “Each service member is equally precious, and each loss of life is equally tragic.”

The AP count is based on information from U.S., NATO or Afghan officials, often impossible to independently verify because of the remote or dangerous locations of the incidents.

The Defense Department count often lags by several days. The most recent Defense Department count, issued Saturday, showed 496 U.S. troop deaths in and around Afghanistan.

Counting coalition troops, Taliban militants and Afghan civilians, more than 3,000 people have died in violence this year, according to the AP count.

In the past, the Taliban appeared to try to minimize civilian casualties by launching its large-scale attacks primarily against U.S., NATO or Afghan troops.

But this year a February bombing at a dog fighting competition in Kandahar killed more than 100 people, mostly civilians. An attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul last month killed more than 60.

Steven Simon, a senior fellow in Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the recent attacks with high civilian death tolls reflect a migration of both tactics and fighters from Iraq to Afghanistan.

“The reported presence in Afghanistan of the head of al-Qaida in Iraq underscores the extent to which blowback from Iraq is being felt in Afghanistan,” Simon said in an e-mail. “At this point, al-Qaida’s leadership seems to be looking at the Afghan theater as the next big thing.”

Afghan and U.S. officials say a big reason for the spike in violence is because militaries use sanctuaries in neighboring Pakistan where they can arm and train fighters who launch attacks across the border on U.S. and Afghan forces. More al-Qaida fighters have been using the region to launch attacks than in previous years, U.S. officials say.

Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi, spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry, blamed the rise on violence principally on two factors: a peace agreement earlier this year between the Pakistan government and some militants in its tribal areas near the Afghan border, and support given by Pakistan’s intelligence agency to Taliban fighters.

Pakistan denies it is helping Taliban fighters or that it has entered into peace agreements with militants who launch attacks in Afghanistan.

Insurgent attacks have jumped by 50 percent in the first half of 2008, according to data from the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office, a Kabul-based group paid for by Western donors that advises relief groups on security.

In a report last week, ANSO said it logged 2,056 insurgent attacks in the first half of the year, a 52 percent increase from the same period last year.

The group said violence was up sharply in relatively peaceful northern and western Afghanistan and the region surrounding Kabul.

Both major presidential candidates, Democratic Sen. Barack Obama and Republican Sen. John McCain, have called for more troops to be sent to Afghanistan. President Bush has said more troops will be dedicated to the Afghan fight in 2009 but has not said how many.

U.S. military officials have said the Afghan effort needs three more brigades of troops, or about 10,500 forces.

Any new forces sent here can expect to face vicious attacks from an increasingly brazen Taliban force. Last month more than 200 militant fighters attacked a remote U.S. outpost in a dangerous and mountainous region of northeastern Afghanistan. Nine U.S. troops were killed and 15 wounded.

Even local Afghan civilians joined in on the attack, a sign the U.S. and NATO face steep challenges in their bid to win the population over to the side of the Afghan government.

“The size of the operation and the ability of the group to get support within the town was somewhat alarming, and it shows that there is clearly some concern with local Afghans, and that’s a concern because civilians are the center of gravity in a counterinsurgency,” said Jones. “The dangerous message is that there was involvement by the civilians.”

August 5, 2008

Money’s power marks US election

If Barack Obama wins his way to the White House, one quiet decision may turn out to have been crucial.

Towards the end of June, he announced that he would not participate in the system of public funding for elections in the United States.

That means he can raise – and spend – perhaps $300m (£150m) compared with the $84.1m (£43.6m) that Mr McCain will get from the tax-payer under the public funding system.

Under the rules, candidates who take public funding for the general election have their spending capped. Accordingly, Mr Obama will be free to spend – Mr McCain will be constrained, although he will be bolstered by the Republican National Committee, which has far more money than the Democratic National Committee.

Tad Devine, who was one of the main strategists for John Kerry in 2004, told the that Mr Obama had learnt from the “swift boating” that floored the Democratic contender.

(A group calling itself Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ran a series of adverts accusing Mr Kerry of lying about his service in Vietnam to get one of his medals for bravery and two of his three Purple Hearts.)

He says of the Kerry decision: “If we had not accepted public funding we would have had on hand enormous resources and when those Swift Boat attacks came, we would have dealt with them in the medium in which they came, which was paid advertising.”

Mr Obama had indicated that he wanted to stick with the public funding system. Renouncing it, accordingly brought Republican allegations of an about-turn.

Mr Devine, a Democrat, sees it differently.

“It’s a testament that this guy can make tough choices,” he says.

Democrats are still smarting from the mauling they got from the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

They were a group of individuals who formed what is known as a 527, after the clause in the tax code that applies to such advocacy groups.

Under the rules, these 527s cannot be connected to a campaign.

But a connection to a campaign can be ambiguous, and where there is ambiguity there will be lawyers.

Democracy

Overlooking the corner of M Street NW and 26th Street in Washington DC is the office of the lawyer for the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and for the Bush-Cheney campaign.

He is one and the same man, Benjamin Ginsburg.

He told me: “There was not a direct link. The truth is that I provided legal functions for them.

“I didn’t deal with the messages and I was very careful to make sure there was no co-ordination between the two in terms of their messages and activities.”

Mr Ginsburg is a charming man with a mind like a laser. His office is a museum of mementos of big historical events in which he has been central.

In one corner, there is a metal voting booth from Palm Beach County in Florida in 2000, complete with chads, those small bits of paper – small bits of contentious paper – on which the presidency turned.

He is a great defender of 527s, the outside groups that are raucous and unpredictable in elections.

“This is a democracy,” he says. “People are allowed to express their views outside the political party structure.”

Another Republican, Michael Toner – who used to be chairman of the Federal Election Commission, which polices elections – says the imbalance in funds this time shows that the system is not working.

He wants more money to be available to candidates who take public funding.

Americans do not spend too much on elections, he thinks, but too little.

“Americans spent $3bn (£1.5bn) last year on potato chips. Isn’t the next leader of the free world worth at least that much?

Fair game

Democrats tend to see Swift Boat Veterans, and the campaign they ran last time, as way below the belt.

Republicans, in return, see it as pretty fair game and point their fingers back at campaigns run by MoveOn.org in particular, which has depicted the US military leader in Iraq, Gen Petraeus as General Betray Us.

Move On is a big web-based organisation that does take much money from ordinary people but also in the past from billionaires like George Soros. Ilyse Hogue, MoveOn’s campaigns director, defended the adverts.

“Raising that issue is critical to having a dialogue into how we responsibly and safely withdraw our troops,” she said. “We’re proud of our record.”

“MoveOn is member-driven, small donor driven. Over the past ten years, 90% of our fund-raising has been from small owners. The current average donation is $42 (£21).

“Swift Boat Veterans for Truth was all big donor funded. It was a couple of big donors calling the shots. That’s the antithesis of how MoveOn works and believes that civil society should work.”

One of the benefits for Mr Obama of raising his own money rather than relying on public funding may be that he can keep better control of his own message.

The reasoning runs that there is little point in giving to candidates if their spending is capped. Why give what cannot be spent?

So his hope may be that giving to his campaign directly might seem more effective for his supporters than giving to fringe groups. So runs the argument.

If that is so, he will be better able to meet whatever gets thrown at him, by fringe groups implying that he is a Muslim, for example.

“They will try that,” says Harold Ickes, one of the legendary political workers in Washington for the Democrats and formerly deputy chief of staff at the Clinton White House, where he earned the appellation “Garbage Man” because of his role as a cleaner up of political mess.

“If you’re talking about a tight election and enough people are convinced of that in Ohio, it can make Ohio slip into the Republican column.”

And race may surface – not formally from the McCain campaign, but from the outside groups.

As Mr Ickes said: “We’re going to find just how deep race cuts in this country.”

The first part of Steve Evans’s two-part investigation into the “The Billion Dollar Election” is broadcast on the World Service on Monday 4 August.

Obama urges opening oil reserves

Obama urges opening oil reserves

US presidential hopeful Barack Obama has outlined his plans to tackle the growing cost of energy and its impact on the American economy.

It is an issue that is expected to play a critical role in the presidential election in November.

In a reversal of policy, Mr Obama said the US should release 70m barrels of oil from its strategic reserves to lower petrol prices in the short-term.

He also suggested releasing more of the national petroleum reserve in Alaska.

Mr Obama reiterated a statement made at the weekend that he could support limited US offshore oil drilling if it were needed to enact a compromise energy policy.

In a similar reversal, his Republican rival, John McCain, has expressed his support for new offshore drilling, as part of an energy plan that includes nuclear energy and tax relief on gas production.

Mr Obama said US politicians have failed for three decades to deal with the energy crisis, and that Mr McCain has been “part of that failure.” In a new TV advert he accuses Mr McCain of being under the sway of big oil firms.

The ad shows Mr McCain with President George W Bush, as a narrator says: “After one president in the pocket of big oil, we can’t afford another.”

A spokesman for Republican Senator McCain said the advert was misleading.

The advert’s narrator says that “big oil’s filling John McCain’s campaign with $2m in contributions”.

The ad also promotes Mr Obama’s plan to use a windfall profits tax on big oil companies to give American families a $1,000 (£508) tax rebate, at a time when many are struggling with high energy prices.

‘Suffering’

In a statement, McCain campaign spokesman Tucker Bounds said the advert failed to mention that Mr Obama had voted in favour of a 2005 bill giving tax breaks to energy producers.

Mr McCain voted against the bill, which was supported by Mr Bush.

“Barack Obama’s latest negative attack ad shows his celebrity is matched only by his hypocrisy,” Mr Bounds said.

“Also not mentioned is the $400,000 from big oil contributors that Barack Obama has already pocketed in this election.”

Mr Obama said his proposal to sell 70 million barrels from the reserve could help in the short-term to drive down the price of petrol at the pump.

His call to release oil from the US strategic reserves represents a change from the energy policy he proposed in June, in which he advocated keeping the reserve intact in case of emergency.

Campaign spokeswoman Heather Zichal said Mr Obama had reconsidered.

“He recognises that Americans are suffering,” she said.

During a speech in Lansing, Michigan, Mr Obama said: “Breaking our oil addiction is one of the greatest challenges our generation will ever face.

“It will take nothing less than a complete transformation of our economy.”

Mr Obama proposed releasing light crude oil from the stockpile, to be replaced at a later date with heavy crude oil.

Light crude oil is easier to turn into fuel for vehicles and other petroleum products.

The Bush administration has opposed tapping the reserve, saying it should be kept for dire emergencies. In 2005, some 10 million barrels were released in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, after supplies to refineries were disrupted.

Mr Obama’s comments came two days after he confirmed he was broadly supportive of a plan for energy independence, which includes limited offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

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