Today's Papers

Arming the Enemy in Afghanistan

The New York Timesleads with a look at how Afghan insurgents may be using ammunition that was intended for government forces. The NYT’s C.J. Chivers was allowed to examine weapons collected from dead insurgents and found that from a total of 30 rifle magazines, “at least 17 contained cartridges, or rounds, identical to ammunition the United States had provided to Afghan government forces.” This could mean that Afghan forces are helping arm the insurgents, either inadvertently or through corrupt networks. USA Todayleads with a report prepared by consultants to the U.S. Agency for International Development that states corruption in the Afghan political and legal systems has become systemic. The Obama administration wants to increase the amount of aid that is funneled through the Afghan government but the “pervasive” and “entrenched” corruption makes that a difficult proposition.

The Washington Postand the Wall Street Journal’s world-wide newsbox lead with Senate Democrats rejecting a request for funding to close the detention center in Guantanamo. In a reversal, Democratic leaders said they would block President Obama’s funding request until he releases a detailed plan for handling the detainees. In addition to stripping the $80 million from the war-spending bill, Democrats also wrote an amendment into the legislation that “explicitly bars” using funds to transfer detainees into the United States. The Los Angeles Timesleads with California voters largely voting down a series of ballot measures that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had said were the state’s best hope for dealing with its current deficit crisis. Turnout was weak, and voters approved only one of the measures, which bans salary hikes for politicians during deficit years. California’s leaders will begin a series of meetings today to work out what parts of the budget should be cut. In an analysis, Michael Finnegan writes that yesterday it became clear how voters “share blame for the political dysfunction that has brought California to the brink of insolvency.” Confronted with a large deficit, Californians chose to neither increase taxes nor reduce spending, showing how “voters’ fickle commands, one proposition at a time, are a top contributor to paralysis in Sacramento.”

If insurgents in Afghanistan are indeed getting munitions from the Afghan forces, it wouldn’t exactly be surprising. The Government Accountability Office recently criticized the United States for failing to keep track of rifles it issued to Afghan troops. But while steps have been taken to account for arms, there isn’t a system to keep track of ammunition. The ammunition found on the insurgents “can come from dozens of potential suppliers” so “the probability that the Taliban and the Pentagon were sharing identical supply sources was small.” But it does suggest that insurgents somehow are getting their hands on munitions meant to be used by government forces. Experts say it’s likely that people with access to the ammunition either sold it for profit or out of support for the insurgents. But military officials also say it’s important not to discount the possibility that the insurgents got a hold of these munitions in the battlefield.

Senate Democrats were optimistic that they could at least keep a fraction of the funds that Obama requested to close Guantanamo in the war-spending bill. But Republicans have seized on the issue, warning that relocating Guantanamo detainees into the United States, even if it is in maximum-security prisons, would be dangerous. This development not only raises the possibility that Obama’s order to close the detention camp by Jan 22., 2010, could be delayed, but is also likely to complicate efforts to get allied nations to take on some of the detainees that have been cleared for release. European leaders have made it abundantly clear that they’d be reluctant to accept any of the detainees unless the United States did as well. There seem to be so few options for the detainees that some Democrats are even echoing Republicans and saying that perhaps Guantanamo should remain open. Obama will address his plans for the detainees tomorrow.

Almost all the papers front the Senate’s 90-5 vote in favor of a bill that would impose new restrictions on the credit card industry. The bill, which could reach Obama’s desk by Memorial Day, “will force the card industry to reinvent itself and consumers to rethink the way they use plastic,” notes the Post. The LAT describes it as “one of this year’s few bipartisan success stories.” The measure would restrict the ability of credit card issuers to increase interest rates and fees whenever they want to. Companies would have to give advance notice before any rate increases, and the measure would make it more difficult for anyone under 21 to get a card. As part of a compromise with Republicans, senators agreed to include an amendment to the legislation that would allow visitors to national parks to carry handguns. The House and Senate still have to reconcile their own versions of the bill, but everyone expects that to be done quickly given the current climate of dissatisfaction with the banking industry.

Credit card companies warned that the bill would translate into higher fees for everyone, as well as a reduction in available credit. Executives also once again warned that they’d  have to cut perks for their best customers. In a front-page analysis, the NYT’s Ron Lieber outlines the main changes contained in the legislation and predicts that “this talk is just so much saber-rattling,” noting that those who spend a lot on their cards help the companies make money, even if they don’t go into debt.

The WP off-leads, and the WSJ  goes inside with, word that the Obama administration is currently in talks to create a new regulatory agency to protect consumers of a wide range of financial products, such as mortgages and hedge funds. The plan is still in the works but the new regulator could work to make sure that providers of financial services aren’t deceiving ordinary consumers. Currently that responsibility falls to a variety of different agencies that often don’t see protecting individual consumers as a priority. The WSJ says the administration is expected to release its plan to Congress in the next two to three weeks.

The NYT goes inside with an update on the situation in Pakistan, where the army is approaching the main city in Swat, Mingora. Most of the area’s residents have left, and the military has prohibited anyone, including journalists and Red Cross officials, from entering, which means all the information about what’s going on in the area that was once a tourist paradise comes from those who have fled. And they describe scenes of devastation, where stray dogs are eating decomposing corpses. More than 1 million have fled the area “in one of the biggest exoduses of internally displaced people in recent years,” notes the NYT. Many say the fight for Mingora will be an important test for a military that is not used to urban warfare. So far, the military has concentrated on clearing the areas around the city. “They will leave Mingora until last,” said a former interior minister. “You have to clear each and every house, and the Taliban are going to give their own pitched battle.”

USAT reports on a new large-scale study of baby-naming trends that found parents are increasingly picking unusual names for their children. “Being unique is now popular,” said one of the study’s authors. While in 1955, 32 percent of boys had one of the year’s 10 most popular names, in 2007 that number was down to 9 percent.