The United Nations has announced the number of civilians killed in Afghanistan last year jumped by nearly 40 percent as the violence in the country soared to its worst levels since 2001. There were over 2,100 reported civilian deaths. The UN said militants were to blame for 55 percent of the deaths, while US-led forces were responsible for nearly 40 percent. Meanwhile, 3,000 more US troops have arrived in Afghanistan, marking the first wave of an expected surge of US forces as part of President Obama’s plan to escalate the war in Afghanistan.
Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s special envoy to South Asia, said Monday that India and Pakistan face one of the most serious security threats since the end of British rule sixty-two years ago as Islamist militants advance toward Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan. Holbrooke’s comment came after the Pakistani government announced it would allow Islamic or sharia law to be imposed in the Swat Valley region as part of a peace accord with the Taliban. The Swat Valley is located just 155 miles northwest of Islamabad. On Sunday, Pakistani President Ali Zardari admitted the Taliban was now present in huge amounts of Pakistan.
Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani condemned the recent US drone attacks that have killed sixty people in Pakistan over the past four days.
Yousaf Raza Gilani: "As far as drone attacks are concerned, my firm belief is that it is counterproductive and not in the interest of the country. Wherever there has been a drone attack in the past, we have condemned it, and I condemn this one today. As for their policy and when it will change, policies are changing all over the world. The people voted Obama in because they wanted a change, so I am sure he will review his policies."
President Obama plans to sign the $787 billion economic stimulus bill today during a ceremony at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. The site was picked in part because its roof has 465 solar panels. Invitees to the ceremony include 250 clean-energy business leaders and community stakeholders.
In other economic news, California plans to send notices to 20,000 state workers today that their jobs may be eliminated due to budget cuts. The announcement came a day after California lawmakers failed to pass a $40 billion budget that would have plugged the state’s deficit with a mix of tax hikes and spending cuts.
In Kansas, the state has suspended income tax refunds and may not be able to pay employees on time, because the state doesn’t have enough money in its main bank account to pay its bills.
Former President Bill Clinton said Monday he should not take any blame for the current financial crisis. Clinton’s comment came during an interview with Ann Curry on the Today Show.
Ann Curry: “You know, this week I’ve been reading this article in Time magazine that lists you as number thirteen as — on the list of who to blame for our current economic crisis in the United States. Should you be thirteen on the list, is what I’m asking.”
President Clinton: “Oh, no. Well, let me ask you this. And my question to them is, did any of them seriously believe if I had been president and my economic team had been in place the last eight years, that this would be happening today? And I think they know the answer to that’s wrong. No.”
Time magazine had criticized Clinton for repealing the Glass-Steagall Act, which for decades had separated commercial and investment banking, and for signing the Commodity Futures Modernization Act, which exempted from federal regulation all derivatives, including the now notorious credit-default swaps.
The New York Times reports federal authorities are now investigating senior US military officers on corruption charges connected to the $125 billion US-led reconstruction effort in Iraq. Last month, investigators subpoenaed the personal bank records of retired Army Colonel Anthony Bell, who was in charge of reconstruction contracting in Iraq in 2003 and 2004. In addition, investigators are examining the activities of Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Ronald Hirtle, who was a senior contracting officer in Baghdad in 2004. It is unclear how much reconstruction money went missing, but The Independent of London reports it could turn out to be the greatest fraud in US history, a bigger theft than Bernard Madoff’s $50 billion Ponzi scheme.
In other Iraq news, a US soldier is being court-martialed today for his alleged involvement in killing four Iraqi prisoners who were bound, blindfolded, shot in the head and dumped in a Baghdad canal in 2007. Sgt. Michael Leahy faces life in prison if convicted on all charges.
International law experts said Monday Washington’s so-called "war on terror" has eroded human rights worldwide, creating lingering cynicism that the United Nations must now combat. Mary Robinson, the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, warned that harsh US detentions and interrogations gave a dangerous signal to other countries that could easily follow suit. Robinson said sweeping changes need to take place to ensure Washington abandons its "war paradigm."
Mary Robinson: "I think it’s important to be aware that the Bush administration’s damage has been recognized by the subsequent administration, and that, in a way, plays to the lessons learned that we’ve talked about in relation to Northern Ireland, in relation to parts of South America in the past. We are not made more secure by the measures that have been taken, and I think that’s the real message that we will try to bring to the United States and to other countries."
Newsweek reports an internal Justice Department report that has sharply criticized the conduct of senior Bush administration lawyers who approved waterboarding and other harsh interrogation tactics is causing anxiety among former Bush administration officials. The draft report reportedly focuses on John Yoo, Jay Bybee and Steven Bradbury.
Israel has seized 425 acres of Palestinian land in the occupied West Bank in order to build 2,500 new homes as part of a major expansion of the Efrat settlement. This settlement is particularly sensitive given that it would help complete a ring of hilltop settlements in Efrat that threaten to cut Arab East Jerusalem off from the West Bank and undermine prospects that East Jerusalem could serve as the capital of a Palestinian state.
Meanwhile, a team of British lawmakers arrived in Gaza on Monday to conduct a fact-finding visit following Israel’s twenty-two-day attack on Gaza.
British MP Edward Davey: "I think we need to get a clear message to the Israeli government, whoever it turns out to be: this sort of thing is just unacceptable. There has to be an international investigation into this, because it seems to me that war crimes have been committed."
In Cambodia, the first UN-backed trial of a former Khmer Rouge leader has begun. On trial is Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch. He headed a notorious prison camp and is accused of presiding over the murder and torture of at least 15,000 inmates. The trial comes thirty years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. It marks the first time a leading figure of the Khmer Rouge has gone on trial.
The United Nations is calling on rich nations to forge a "Global Green New Deal" that puts the environment, climate change and poverty reduction at the heart of efforts to reboot the world economy. At a meeting in Kenya, the United Nations Environment Program said Leaders from the Group of 20 nations should commit at least one percent of gross domestic product over the next two years to slashing carbon emissions.
Achim Steiner, executive director of the UNEP: "Our meeting this year takes place against the backdrop of the most serious economic recession in a generation, some would say perhaps even longer. The traditional response to economic recession when addressing environmental issues is that essentially economic recession is a detraction from attention to environmental imperatives to act."
Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki also spoke at the UN meeting in Nairobi.
Mwai Kibaki: "Environmental degradation continues to undermine the prospects of fighting poverty and the realization of high economic growth and sustainable development, particularly in many developing countries."
Climate researchers have found worldwide carbon emissions have grown sharply since 2000, despite growing concern of global warming. During the 1990s, carbon emissions grew by less than one percent per year. Since 2000, emissions have grown at a rate of 3.5 percent per year. No part of the world had a decline in emissions from 2000 to 2008. Climate scientist Christopher Field says the largest factor in this increase is the widespread adoption of coal as an energy source.
In related news, environmental activists here in this country are intensifying efforts to stop the construction of new coal power plants and to end the practice of mountaintop coal removal. In West Virginia, two members of the group Climate Ground Zero were arrested Monday for interfering with mountaintop removal at a site owned by Massey Energy. On March 2, a coalition of environmental groups are planning to stage a large demonstration at the Capitol Coal Plant in Washington, D.C., in what is expected to be the largest civil disobedience on climate change in US history.
And at midnight tonight, more than 400 television stations across the country plan to shut off their analog signals and begin airing only digital programming, despite a vote in Congress to delay the transition from analog to digital broadcasts until June. The major broadcast networks, including ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC/Telemundo, have agreed that the stations they own and operate would continue to broadcast in analog until June but that affiliate stations could choose when to switch. An estimated 6.5 million households are unprepared for the “digital transition.” Elderly, Latino and low-income households are believed to be most affected.
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