Afghanistan Pushes Back

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, August 28, 2008; 11:45 AM

Apparently taking his cues from Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Afghan President Hamid Karzai is calling for some limits on what President Bush can do in his country.

Karen DeYoung writes in The Washington Post: "For the past six years, military relations between the United States and Afghanistan have been governed by a two-page 'diplomatic note' giving U.S. forces virtual carte blanche to conduct operations as they see fit.

"Although President Bush pledged in a 2005 declaration signed with Afghan President Hamid Karzai to 'develop appropriate arrangements and agreements' formally spelling out the terms of the U.S. troop presence and other bilateral ties, no such agreements were drawn up.

"But after a U.S.-led airstrike last week that United Nations and Afghan officials have said killed up to 90 civilians -- most of them children -- Karzai has publicly called for a review of all foreign forces in Afghanistan and a formal 'status of forces agreement,' along the lines of an accord being negotiated between the United States and Iraq.

"The prospect of codifying the ad hoc rules under which U.S. forces have operated in Afghanistan since late 2001 sends shudders through the Bush administration, which has struggled to finalize its agreement with Baghdad. 'It's never been done because the issues have been too big to surmount,' said one U.S. official who was not authorized to discuss the subject on the record. 'The most diplomatic way of saying it is that there are just a lot of moving parts,' the official said. . . .

"Civilian casualties, long a recurring problem in Afghanistan, tripled last year as thinly spread U.S. and NATO forces grew more dependent on air power against a resurgent Taliban. . . .

"According to the U.S. Air Forces Central Combined Air and Space Operations Center, the number of strikes this year in which munitions were dropped totaled 2,368 as of Aug. 4. The equivalent number for the same period in Iraq was 783."

Eric Schmitt writes in the New York Times: "American military officials sought on Wednesday to refute claims that as many as 90 civilians -- among them 60 children -- were killed in airstrikes on a village in western Afghanistan last Friday.

"In the face of an investigation by Afghan officials and a report by a United Nations team that support the high number of deaths, United States officials maintain that 25 militants and 5 civilians were killed in airstrikes called in after Afghan and American commandos came under heavy fire during a raid on the compound of a top Taliban commander. . . .

"The political and diplomatic consequences of the attack have been mounting by the day, with the government of President Hamid Karzai using the episode to demand greater coordination between Afghan and allied forces.

"On Tuesday, a United Nations human rights team said it had found 'convincing evidence' to support the higher death toll, corroborating figures given earlier by a government commission sent from Kabul to investigate the bombing, which put the total dead at up to 95.

"But American officials, venting frustration over what they said were cursory reviews, said Wednesday that neither investigation had found any physical evidence to support the higher death tolls, and instead relied on the word of villagers who either supported or were cowed by Taliban fighters in the region.

"If the higher death tolls prove to be correct, however, this would almost certainly be a severe embarrassment to the military, and the deadliest case of civilian casualties caused by any United States military operation in Afghanistan since 2001."

In a separate story, Schmitt writes in the New York Times: "The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff secretly convened a highly unusual meeting of senior American and Pakistani commanders on an aircraft carrier in the Indian Ocean on Tuesday to discuss how to combat the escalating violence along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. . . .

"The meeting was prompted by a series of ominous developments: continuing political turmoil in Pakistan, increasingly deadly attacks against Afghan and Western targets in Afghanistan and American complaints that the Pakistani military has been ineffective in stemming the flow of militants who launch attacks in Afghanistan from Pakistani havens.

"American officials pointed to two major Taliban attacks in Afghanistan last week -- a coordinated assault by at least 10 suicide bombers against one of the largest American military bases and another by about 100 insurgents who ambushed and killed 10 elite French paratroopers."

'We're Being Dunced Around Here'

Just how long can the Bush legal team stave off Congress?

Richard B. Schmitt writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Congress and the Bush administration headed for a preelection showdown Wednesday over the issue of executive privilege, with House Democrats scheduling a hearing that would put a key former administration figure under oath and the Justice Department mapping a last-ditch court appeal. . . .

"Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, announced that he was calling former White House counsel Harriet E. Miers to appear before the committee on Sept. 11 to answer questions about her role in the firings.

"Conyers also set a Sept. 4 deadline for the administration to turn over White House documents concerning the firings as well as a log detailing what documents it was withholding because of security concerns and why. . . .

"Investigators are trying to determine whether Miers and Karl Rove, Bush's former chief political advisor, were involved in the 2006 firings. Democrats have alleged that the prosecutors were singled out for failing to bring corruption and other cases that benefited Republicans and that the idea was hatched at the White House. Rove has also refused to appear before the House and Senate Judiciary committees and has been held in contempt by both panels. . . .

Matt Apuzzo writes for the Associated Press: "Justice Department lawyers said Wednesday that they will soon ask a federal appeals court not to force the president's top advisers to comply with congressional subpoenas next month. President Bush argues Congress doesn't have the authority to demand information from his aides.

"U.S. District Judge John Bates strongly rejected that stance last month, ordering former White House counsel Harriet Miers to testify and White House chief of staff Joshua Bolten to turn over documents related to the firing of federal prosecutors. . . .

"If the appeals court refuses to temporarily block the testimony, it would essentially be endorsing Bates' ruling against the Bush administration. Miers likely would have to comply with the subpoena, setting a precedent that would give Congress new teeth in its investigations and weaken future presidents.

"On the other hand, if the appeals court temporarily blocks Miers' testimony, it could allow the Bush administration to run out the clock before a new Congress comes to Washington and the case becomes moot. In that situation, Bates' order will have been weakened and future presidents will have more wiggle room."

Schmitt writes in the LA Times that "several legal scholars said they doubted that even a conservative panel would intervene. Bates himself was appointed by Bush to the federal bench in 2001, they noted, and he was likely to be shown deference.

"They also said his central ruling appeared to be indisputable.

"'The Supreme Court has never given any indication that the White House counsel or people who work for the president can just ignore a subpoena,' said Cass R. Sunstein, a professor at the University of Chicago law school. 'It would be very surprising to think that the White House official does not even have to appear to assert the privilege.'"

And what about the continued negotiations between the White House and the Judiciary Committee?

Apuzzo writes: "House counsel Irv Nathan said negotiations have been 'completely useless.'

"'We have not found willing partners on the other side of the table,' Nathan said in court Wednesday, telling Bates that 'we're being dunced around here.'

"Justice Department attorney Carl Nichols called those statements misleading but declined to elaborate."

Cheney on Georgia

Tim Gaynor writes for Reuters: "Vice President Dick Cheney on Wednesday called Russia's actions in Georgia an 'unjustified assault' and pledged to ensure the small U.S. ally's territorial integrity.

"'We will work with our allies to ensure Georgia's territorial integrity as a free and independent nation,' Cheney told a meeting of armed forces veterans in Phoenix ahead of his trip to the Georgian capital Tbilisi next week."

Cheney on Torture

CNN reports: "Vice President Dick Cheney defended the Bush administration's record on prisoner interrogations, telling a veterans' group that its use of 'alternative' techniques against suspects was legal and proper."

But talk about chutzpah. Cheney, after raising the issue of interrogation policy, stressed that "it's important for Americans to understand what we are doing, why we are doing it, and what we are not doing."

Then all he offered up were the usual, vague, trust-us talking points, leaving all of those questions -- even including why they did it-- entirely unclear.

"The CIA program involves tough customers and tough interrogations --- but it is entirely legal and proper," Cheney said. "The procedures are designed to be safe in full compliance with this nation's laws and treaty obligations. They've been carefully reviewed by the Department of Justice. . . .

"No nation in the world takes human rights more seriously than the United States. The policies of our country comply with our law, which prohibits torture. We're proud of our country and what it stands for. We expect all who serve America to conduct themselves with honor. And we enforce the rules."

How can he say that tactics known to have been used in CIA prisons and Guantanamo -- such as waterboarding, the use of dogs to terrify detainees, sleep deprivation and stress positions -- aren't torture? And how can he condemn what happened at Abu Ghraib, but ignore the evidence that it didn't happen in a vacuum -- indeed, that it can be linked directly to his own office?

Cheney also noted that "as the President has made clear, the program has uncovered a wealth of information that has foiled specific attacks -- information that has on numerous occasions made the difference between life and death." But neither Bush nor Cheney have put forth a shred of evidence to support that assertion.

Karl Rove Watch

Time reporter Massimo Calabresi reviews what's happened to Karl Rove in the year since he left the White House under a cloud of scandal and failure.

"In private, Rove speaks regularly with the McCain campaign, where his former protégé Steve Schmidt is now the manager. He's also dialed in at the Republican National Committee, run by Mike Duncan, another former aide. And he still lunches two or three times a month with President Bush.

"But Rove has also been busy refashioning his public persona. A regular commentator for Fox News and an occasional columnist for the Wall Street Journal and Newsweek, Rove is the undisputed chairman of the Republican commentariat, delivering what his friend and former Clinton administration lawyer Lanny Davis calls 'balanced, intelligent and sometimes even-handed' analysis from his lofty media perches.

"All told, as the sprint to November gets under way, Rove's influence is as great or greater than any other private player in America."

Assured that the McCain campaign has now embraced his attack-dog campaign tactics, Rove appears to focused on making sure it doesn't abandon his divide-and-conquer political strategy.

Robert Novak writes in an opinion column that there is strong support within McCain's presidential campaign for picking former Democratic Sen. Joseph Lieberman as his running mate. . . .

"McCain's top strategists argue that the Bush coalition that won the last two presidential elections is dead and must be replaced by a new one that extends to the left, as Lieberman would. Bush strategists disagree, asserting that McCain is getting around 90 percent of the old Bush vote and can win the election with a few moderates added in."

Jonathan Martin writes for Politico that Rove called Lieberman late last week and urged him to withdraw his name from vice-presidential consideration.

"Lieberman 'laughed at the suggestion and certainly did not call [McCain] on it,' said one source familiar with the details," Martin writes. "'Rove is pushing Romney so aggressively some folks are beginning to wonder what's going on,' grumbled one veteran Republican strategist."

Convention Bush-Bashing Watch

From Sen. John Kerry's speech last night: "Never in modern history has an administration squandered American power so recklessly. Never has strategy been so replaced by ideology. Never has extremism so crowded out common sense and fundamental American values. Never has short-term partisan politics so depleted the strength of America's bipartisan foreign policy.

"George Bush, with John McCain at his side, promised to spread freedom but delivered the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time. They misread the threat and misled the country. Instead of freedom, it's Hamas, Hezbollah, the Taliban and dictators everywhere that are on the march. North Korea has more bombs, and Iran is defiantly chasing one."

From Democratic vice presidential nominee Joseph Biden's speech: "As we gather here tonight, our country is less secure and more isolated that it has been any time it has in recent history. The Bush foreign policy has dug us into a very deep hole, with very few friends to help us climb out. And for the last seven years, the administration has failed to face the biggest the biggest forces shaping this century. The emergence of Russia, China and India's great powers, the spread of lethal weapons, the shortage of secure supplies of energy, food and water. The challenge of climate change and the resurgence of fundamentalism in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the real central front in the war on terror."

From former President Clinton's speech: "Look at the example the Republicans have set. In this decade, American workers have consistently given us rising productivity. That means, year after year, they work harder and produce more. Now, what did they get in return? Declining wages, less than one-fourth as many new jobs as in the previous eight years, smaller health care and pension benefits, rising poverty, and the biggest increase in income inequality since the 1920s.

"American families by the millions are struggling with soaring health care costs and declining coverage. . . .

"What about the military families pushed to the breaking point by multiple, multiple deployments? What about the assault on science and the defense of torture? What about the war on unions and the unlimited favors for the well-connected? And what about Katrina and cronyism?"

McCain on Bush

From a prickly interview with Time's James Carney and Michael Scherer:

Q. "How different are you from President Bush? Are you in step with your party? Are you independent from your party?"

McCain: "My record shows that I have put my country first and I follow the philosophy and traditions of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. Sometimes that is not in keeping with the present Administration or my colleagues, but I've always put my country first, whether it's saying I didn't support the decision to go to Lebanon or my fighting against the corruption in Washington or out-of-control pork-barrel spending, which has led to members of Congress residing in federal prison. So I've always stood up for a set of principles and a philosophy that I think have been pretty consistent over the years."

Hurricane Watch

James Gerstenzang blogs for the Los Angeles Times: "Are the weather gods conspiring to deliver a reminder of one of President Bush's lowest points just as he is about to speak to the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn.?

"A five-day forecast has tropical storm Gustav moving up the Gulf of Mexico this weekend, and striking the same swath of Louisiana and Mississippi as Hurricane Katrina did three years ago some time on Monday."

Live Online

We had a lively Live Online yesterday. Come read the transcript.

Cartoon Watch

Pat Bagley on Bush's broken heart.

Post a Comment

Comments that include profanity or personal attacks or other inappropriate comments or material will be removed from the site. Additionally, entries that are unsigned or contain "signatures" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. Finally, we will take steps to block users who violate any of our posting standards, terms of use or privacy policies or any other policies governing this site. Please review the full rules governing commentaries and discussions. You are fully responsible for the content that you post.

© 2008 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive