In his most significant military decision to date, President Obama has ordered an additional 17,000 US troops to Afghanistan. The move fulfills a campaign pledge to increase the size of the US occupation. The new deployments will take effect in May, increasing the US occupation force to 55,000 — a 50 percent rise. Another 32,000 non-US NATO troops are also in Afghanistan. The news came as the UN said Afghan civilian casualties jumped by nearly 40 percent last year. US-led forces were responsible for nearly 40 percent of the deaths, killing 828 people out of a reported 2,100 casualties.
President Obama meanwhile is set to unveil a $50 billion foreclosure prevention plan later today. The program would offer government money to mortgage companies that let borrowers restructure loans. The plan also reportedly grants bankruptcy judges greater leeway to change mortgages and lets homeowners refinance loans if they owe more than their home is worth. The expected announcement comes one day after Obama signed the economic stimulus bill into law at a ceremony in Denver.
President Obama: “And what makes this recovery plan so important is not just that it will create or save three-and-a-half million jobs over the next two years, including 60,000-plus here in Colorado, it’s that we’re putting Americans to work doing the work that America needs done, in critical areas.”
The auto giants General Motors and Chrysler have asked the government for another $21.6 billion in federal aid. The companies say they need the money to avoid filing for bankruptcy. GM also unveiled a plan to cut 47,000 more jobs; close five North America plants; and drop several brands, including Saturn and Hummer. General Motors CEO Rick Wagoner said the company wants to avoid bankruptcy.
GM CEO Rick Wagoner: “Based on our analysis, we continue to believe that bankruptcy would be a highly risky and very costly process, potentially very time-consuming, that should only be undertaken as a last resort. So our focus, our primary efforts continue to be on transforming our business and executing GM’s viability plan outside of bankruptcy court.”
GM has already received some $13.4 billion in loans under the auto industry bailout. It says it would need as much as $100 billion in government financing if it goes through bankruptcy.
New figures show the taxpayer-funded bailout of Wall Street did not lead to the promised boost in bank lending. The Treasury Department says the twenty largest banks receiving taxpayer bailout money actually reduced giving out loans in the last three months of 2008. The Treasury says the drop in lending would have been greater without the taxpayer money.
The Securities and Exchange Commission has charged a Texas billionaire and three of his companies in an $8 billion fraud scheme. The SEC says Robert Allen Stanford used his Antigua-based bank to defraud investors by selling them phony certificates of deposit. Last year, the Forbes Rich List ranked Stanford the 205th wealthiest person in the United States. The Center for Responsive Politics says Stanford’s lobbying could likely have helped defeat passage of the Financial Services Antifraud Network Act in 2002. The measure would have created a centralized record of banking, insurance and financial regulators to combat fraud. Stanford Financial Group made its most political contributions over the 2001-2002 cycle, when the bill passed the House but stalled in the Senate.
A federal judge has refused to dismiss charges against five Blackwater mercenaries accused in the mass killing of fourteen Iraqis in September 2007. Defense attorneys had contended the US government doesn’t have jurisdiction to bring charges, because the guards were granted immunity. Judge Ricardo Urbina refused to drop the charges but said he thinks the defense argument is “strong” and should be decided by the trial judge or jury. Blackwater recently renamed itself “Xe” in an attempt to repair its image.
The Environmental Protection Agency has announced it will consider reversing a Bush administration order weakening regulation of coal-fired power plants. On Tuesday, EPA head Lisa Jackson said the agency will consider and hear public comments on reimposing limits on carbon dioxide emissions. Jackson made the announcement in response to a Sierra Club petition against a coal plant in Utah.
In Colombia, the rebel group FARC has admitted to killing eight indigenous Colombians they say passed intelligence to the Colombian military. The killings have forced a new wave of Awa indigenous people to flee their homes. Indigenous leader Luis Fernando Arias condemned the attack.
Luis Fernando Arias: “The Colombian armed forces accuse us of not wanting to cooperate, that we do not give information, and the guerrillas say that they kill us because we are army informants. What we want is, in a clear manner, to tell all the actors in the conflict, to all the armed players, to stop involving the Indian tribes and regular citizens in the armed conflict.”
Guatemala has issued a formal apology to Cuba for taking part in the US “Bay of Pigs” invasion of 1961. The Kennedy administration used Guatemalan soil to train the group of militants used in the ultimately failed attack. On Tuesday, Guatemalan President Álvaro Colom said he wished to “officially ask Cuba for forgiveness.” The US has never apologized for the Bay of Pigs invasion.
In Mexico, hundreds of people have blocked roads near the US-Mexico border in protest of an army crackdown on drug-related violence. The government says it’s trying to stop drug cartels that have stepped up smuggling and violent attacks. But some human rights groups say the danger has only increased since troops arrived. Fifteen Mexicans have been killed in drug-related violence since Sunday.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is on her first foreign trip since taking the State Department helm. Clinton arrived in Indonesia today following her first stop in Japan.
And two probes have begun into Illinois Senator Roland Burris after he gave conflicting accounts of how he came to be named to his seat. Burris recently acknowledged he had conversations with allies of former Governor Rod Blagojevich before Blagojevich named him to fill Barack Obama’s Senate seat. Burris also said he tried to raise money for Blagojevich at the request of the governor’s brother. When questioned under oath last month, Burris failed to tell state lawmakers about these conversations. The United States Senate Ethics Committee and a local Illinois prosecutor say they’re investigating Burris in light of the claims. Blagojevich was impeached and removed from office last month after he was accused of trying to sell Obama’s seat.