Around 20 members of U.S. President Barack Obama's national security team met for the ninth or tenth time last night to discuss the situation in Afghanistan, and rumors are coalescing around "early next week" for the president to announce his decision of a "middle-ground option that would deploy an eventual 32,000 to 35,000 U.S. forces" to the Afghan theater (AP, NPR, Reuters, AP, AFP). Politico, Reuters, NPR, and McClatchy all report the much-anticipated decision will come in a presidential television address on December 1 (Politico, Reuters, NPR, McClatchy).
The top U.S. and NATO commander in the country, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, and the U.S. ambassador to Kabul, Amb. Karl Eikenberry, have both reportedly been told to prepare to testify before Congress "as early as next week," so they can offer support for the president's decision (Washington Post, NPR). Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Mike Mullen are also expected to brief Congress on the subject (Los Angeles Times).
A recent idea that has reportedly not yet come up in Obama's extensive war council meetings is a potential "war tax on the wealthy" to pay for additional troops mentioned by some in the Senate, and three House Democrats -- all committee chairmen -- have proposed an increase in taxes for families to begin in 2011, the amount of which would be based on how much they earn (Politico, AP, Reuters, New York Times). The idea is considered unlikely to pass Congress but is a barometer of growing Democratic opposition to escalating the war in Afghanistan.
Corruption and poppies
As Afghan President Hamid Karzai settles into his second five-year term as leader of the country, he faces a quick test of how serious he is about addressing the prevalent corruption in his government: the Afghan attorney general's office yesterday announced that up to 15 current and former government officials are being investigated on allegations including embezzlement and fraud (Washington Post, BBC, Guardian, McClatchy, Telegraph, ABC). Speculation about the identities of the current officials under question is rife, and possible candidates are the Minister of Religious Affairs and the Minister of Mines, who was reported last week to have accepted a $30 million bribe in exchange for awarding a development contract to a Chinese firm.
And a border police chief in Kandahar has been arrested and is due to stand trial today on charges of involvement in a high-level drug smuggling ring, to the chagrin of Hamid Karzai, who was reportedly "very angry" because the suspect, identified as Commander S, "was part of Ahmed Wali Karzai's network," referring to the president's brother, a powerful player in southern Afghanistan (Times of London). The case underlines concerns about Karzai's dedication to rooting out corruption, and rather than giving up evidence against those further up the chain, Commander S may reportedly hold out for a presidential pardon in his case.
U.S. officials announced yesterday that the U.S. plans to give nearly $40 billion to 27 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces that either reduced by 10 percent or eliminated entirely the cultivation of poppies, the raw ingredient for heroin and a source of corruption and funding for the Taliban (AP). And clerics in Helmand province, the source of more than half of the country's opium, said yesterday to a large gathering in the capital of Lashkar Gah that poppies are prohibited and asked farmers not to grow them (Pajhwok).
Behind closed doors
A widely-read newspaper in Pakistan, Dawn, reports that the U.S. has engaged in back-channel talks with some members of the Afghan Taliban via intelligence agencies in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia (Dawn). A source told Dawn that one of the main objectives of CIA chief Leon Panetta's recent visit to Pakistan was to assess the progress made in the back-channel negotiations.
The governor of Afghanistan's Uruzgan province has reportedly been pleading with the Dutch government not to remove their security forces as planned (Financial Times, AFP). Asadullah Hamdam told the Financial Times, "The people of Uruzgan are very familiar with the Dutch... If they do leave, it will mean they are going at an important time and with their job only half finished."
And a remote controlled bomb planted in a water distribution facility was detonated in the eastern Afghan province of Khost earlier this morning, killing six members of one family including two toddlers (AP, Reuters). The attack has not been claimed and authorities are investigating what the target might have been.
The expanding battle zone
Pakistani troops continue military operations against Taliban militants in Pakistan's troubled northwest, as 18 extremists were reportedly killed in a fresh offensive earlier today in the Bara region, outside the Northwest Frontier Province capital of Peshawar, which has been a frequent target of Taliban attacks in the last two months (AP, Reuters). Hangu and Orakzai, adjacent districts in northwest Pakistan, have been the site of recent fighting between government forces and militants fleeing the current offensive in South Waziristan (AP, Dawn, CNN). More than 500 militants have reportedly been killed since operations began in mid-October, but verification of information is impossible because journalists and aid workers are barred from visiting the region independently.
Pakistani commanders have apparently complained that the U.S.'s withdrawal from outposts on the Afghan side of the border has allowed militants to cross into Pakistan more easily, undermining the "hammer and anvil" strategy of squeezing the militants from both sides (Times of London). And NATO supply tankers crossing between the Pakistani provinces of Sindh and Baluchistan were attacked by eight gunmen late last night, though no casualties have been reported (Geo TV).
The Lashkar update
Matthew Rosenberg has today's must-read on the current state of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Pakistan-based militant group believed to be behind the terrorist attacks in Mumbai that occurred one year ago Thursday (Wall Street Journal). The group endures today because of Pakistan's promises to dismantle it after the Mumbai attacks remain unfulfilled, and funds still flow into Lashkar's front charity.
Five Pakistani army officers have been detained for questioning related to the cases of David Headley and Tawwahur Rana, two terror suspects arrested last month in Chicago accused of plotting an attack on a Danish newspaper that in 2005 published cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad (AP). The two men arrested are suspected of working with senior members of al Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Taiba, and the detention of the Pakistani officers -- including one retired brigadier general and two active lieutenant colonels -- highlights long-standing suspicions that members of Pakistan's military have links with the terrorist outfit.
Accused militants in Minnesota
Yesterday federal prosecutors unsealed documents detailing new terrorism charges against eight men, accusing them of recruiting as many as 20 Somali Americans from Minnesota to fight with al Shabaab, an al Qaeda-allied insurgent movement in Somalia (Washington Post, AP, New York Times, FBI). The accused allegedly went to training camps in southern Somalia in 2007, where they learned to use machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades; a total of 14 people have now been implicated in the investigation and at least six recruits have died in Somalia thus far.
Afghan farmers are buzzing with the news that the use of bees in their almond crops could result in a 40 percent increase in production (Pajhwok). Though the idea initially seemed nutty to the almond farmers, they have been persuaded in recent seasons that it is a honey of a plan.
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