Today's Papers

Pressing the Reset Button on Afghanistan

Afghanistan is the main topic of the day as all the papers preview the announcement President Obama will make today about changes to the American strategy to decrease violence in the war-torn country that will place lots of emphasis on Pakistan. Obama will announce plans to send 4,000 military trainers to Afghanistan in the fall, which will be on top of the additional 17,000 combat troops the president authorized last month and “hundreds” of U.S. civilian officials. USA Todaypoints out that sending additional aid workers “follows Obama’s previous statements that Afghanistan can’t be tamed by military force alone.” For the first time, the U.S. government will explicitly tie future aid to certain benchmarks that will measure how much the Afghan and Pakistani governments are doing to fight al-Qaida and the Taliban. In demanding concrete results from the two countries, Obama “is replicating a strategy used in Iraq two years ago,” notes the New York Times. The Los Angeles Times highlights that the new strategy comes at a time when Afghanistan’s former Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, “is pursuing a determined effort to reclaim power.” The Wall Street Journalnotes that the Pentagon is considering setting up “a new U.S. military command in southern Afghanistan,” which would “signal increasing American control over the war effort.” The Washington Posthighlights that the new strategy will involve a significant increase in the financial commitment to both Afghanistan and Pakistan and increase U.S. military expenses in Afghanistan by around 60 percent this year.

The NYT places Obama’s plan as one piece in its two-story lead. The paper’s main story reveals that Taliban leaders in Pakistan and Afghanistan have decided to set aside their differences and work together in a new offensive in Afghanistan to greet the buildup of American troops. In an impressive feat of reporting, the NYT talked to several Taliban fighters along the border region who say a group of younger commanders has recently been promoted to carry out a stepped-up campaign of attacks against U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

The NYT says Mullah Omar sent emissaries to his counterparts in Pakistan to convince them to focus on Afghanistan so the Taliban can greet American troops with a renewed display of force. The Pakistani Taliban have been divided into three branches that haven’t always seen eye-to-eye, but Mullah Omar apparently urged them to set aside their differences so they can all work together against the Americans. This renewed cooperation has raised fears among NATO commanders that the violence in Afghanistan will soon get much worse. Taliban fighters say they have reason to worry and predict that it would be a “very bloody” year.

Obama’s new plan for the Afghanistan-Pakistan region comes after a two-month review that began pretty much as soon as he moved into the White House. The president “will describe it as a sharp break with what officials called a directionless and under-resourced conflict inherited from the Bush administration,” notes the Post. Essentially, the White House hopes to bring an end to the growing insurgency, by focusing on “building local governments, wooing the civilian population with aid and providing more help to the Afghan army,” USAT summarizes. The administration is convinced that a significant proportion of insurgents can be induced to support their local governments. The WSJ points out that the Obama administration is explicitly moving away from the Bush administration’s broad goal of building a healthy democracy in Afghanistan to focus more specifically on defeating al-Qaida and the Taliban. The efforts will also place a specific focus on fighting the narcotics trade in Afghanistan.

The NYT notes that the goals Obama will outline “may be elusive and, according to some critics, even naive.” The administration wants to get several countries, including China, Russia, and India, involved by specifying that the Afghan war is a regional issue in which everyone has a stake. Still, Obama seems to have accepted the fact that other NATO members aren’t likely to contribute more combat troops to the effort and instead will ask European countries to send more trainers and economic aid to the region.

Officials say the benchmarks for Afghanistan and Pakistan are still being developed, but they emphasized that the demands will be strict. Placing conditions on aid for Pakistan might prove particularly difficult since similar, less ambitious efforts have been resisted in the past. But the administration is determined to move away from the old way of doing things. “We’re going to move from a policy of throwing money at Pakistan and then ignoring it to a policy of consistency and constancy,” a senior administration official said.

In other news, the WP reveals that Freddie Mac and its regulator recently got into a big tiff over what information the mortgage giant should reveal to private investors. The federal government seized Freddie Mac in September, but this latest drama shows how it’s still not clear what role the government should play in the company’s day-to-day operations. A few weeks ago, executives decided they should disclose to private investors that the government’s management was costing it billions of dollars and would hurt its bottom line. The regulator didn’t like the sound of that and urged Freddie executives to press the delete button. The regulator backed down only after executives threatened to take the issue up with the Securities and Exchange Commission. This is just the latest example of how the company’s employees “are struggling to determine whether their highest priority should be to fulfill the mandates of the Obama administration or find a way back to profitability,” notes the Post.

The WSJ points out that even as the Treasury Department promised to usher in “a new era of accountability, transparency, and conditions,” it isn’t answering a seemingly simple question: How much money is left from the $700 billion bailout package? Assuming the Treasury spends $100 billion of the TARP funds to help buy toxic assets, private calculations put the amount of money remaining at $52.6 billion. But the Treasury isn’t saying. Even when asked directly, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has evaded giving a specific answer.

The WSJ fronts a look at how stocks continued to rally yesterday and the Dow Jones industrial average finished up 174.75 points. The Dow has now increased 21 percent from its recent bottom, “a new bull market by a common Wall Street definition.” It marks the first time the market has gained 20 percent since October 2007, and it was all achieved in 13 trading days, “making it the fastest 20% rebound from a bear-market low since 1938,” notes the paper. Many think this is just temporary, because short-term investors are responsible for much of the increase but they will jump out of the market at the first sign of trouble. Experts say that it seems like many investors are trying to “time the market,” which makes the market more volatile. “Anecdotally, many hedge funds have become more like day traders,” an analyst said. Even if it’s just a temporary rally, many think it could last several weeks, and some are even declaring that the bear market might be ending. Of course, many have thought that before only to be bitterly disappointed.

The papers go inside with a Sudanese government official claiming that convoy trucks carrying weapons and African migrants were bombed by foreign warplanes. The convoys were believed to be carrying weapons destined for Gaza, and the NYT talks to American officials who confirm that the airstrikes were carried out by Israeli warplanes. Israel refused to confirm the attack, but if it was involved, it “would underscore the Jewish state’s determination to strike far beyond its borders to protect its security,” notes the LAT. It’s unclear how many people died in the attacks. The LAT quotes a spokesman for Sudan’s Transport Ministry who said as many as 800 people died, but the NYT talks to another government spokesman who put the number at “more than 100.”

The NYT points out that while many stars have recently turned to Twitter to give fans a close-up look into their daily lives, it turns out that—shockingly!—the rich and famous may not be the ones doing all that typing. In “many cases” stars have turned to what the paper dubs “ghost Twitterers” to maintain a constant stream of updates. Most aren’t willing to admit it, but celebrities are hardly alone in this practice as many politicians also assign staff members to keep up with their social networks. Basketball star Shaquille O’Neal insists he writes all his own stuff. “It’s 140 characters,” he said. “If you need a ghostwriter for that, I feel sorry for you.”