Thousands of US and NATO forces have launched one of the largest military offensives of the eight-year war in an attempt to remove the Taliban from the city of Marjah in Helmand province. US officials have described the operation as a success so far, but on Sunday twelve Afghans died when two rockets fired by NATO slammed into the wrong house. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has called for an investigation into the deaths. Ten of those killed were from the same family. The US said the dead included nine civilians and three insurgents. Prior to the errant bombing, Admiral Mike Mullen, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said a goal of the operation was to have no civilian casualties.
Admiral Michael Mullen: “It’s off to a good start. There’s great focus on — and [Afghan] President Karzai has made this point, and I think this is critical — on having — we would like to have no civilian causalities. I mean, this is focused on the people. This is not focused on the Taliban. And it is a strategy that will not just clear the area, but that will hold it and then build right behind it. So there’s a civilian component here, and there’s a local governance piece, which is going to be installed immediately, as well.”
While the operation is being described as one of the largest of the war, it is unclear how many members of the Taliban remain in the region to fight. Many members of the Talibam are believed to have fled into Pakistan after the US warned the attack on Marjah was imminent. The assault is the first test of President Barack Obama’s plan to send 30,000 more troops to seize insurgent-held areas and smooth the way for permanent government rule in the area. Many residents of Marjah said they fled to nearby towns to avoid the US assault.
Haji Turjan: “We escaped from the area because of the fighting. I am demanding that the government help us here. Some members of my family are sick. We need medicines and other help as soon as possible.”
The Washington Post reports President Obama has authorized dozens of assassinations of al-Qaeda leaders and its allies since taking office. During the same period, the administration has not reported capturing any high-value prisoners. The Obama administration has authorized targeted killings more frequently than the George W. Bush administration did in its final years, including in countries where US ground operations are officially unwelcome or especially dangerous. In September, US Special Operations Forces operating in Somalia decided to blow up a car carrying the leader of al-Qaeda in East Africa instead of trying to capture him. The US have carried out at least two strikes inside Yemen. The Post reports US personnel have also worked closely on counterterrorism missions with local forces in Indonesia and the Philippines.
Tens of thousands of Haitians gathered in Port-au-Prince on Friday for a national day of mourning held one month after the devastating earthquake killed at least 200,000 and left over a million people homeless. Haitian President René Préval asked Haitians to “dry their eyes” and rebuild their shattered country.
René Préval: “Some pain can’t be described in words. The only answer for all of that pain has been to look for some help, until now. Above all, outside. The pain is so heavy. Today we, the Haitian people, have to mourn our dead with dignity.”
During a trip to Haiti, UN Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes said the two top priorities for Haiti are now shelter and sanitation.
John Holmes: “Sanitation is a huge issue, complicated, as is shelter, by the number of sites that are there, the fluctuating populations in those sites, the need to move people from one site to another, in some cases, because where they are is not going to be sustainable in the rainy season. But this is a major challenge. We need to construct something like 25,000 latrines of one sort of another, whether they be dug latrines, trench latrines or portable latrines. I don’t want to go into too much detail, but that’s the issue. In fact, there, we’re still probably not more than five or ten percent of the way there, so there’s a huge challenge there, too.”
Despite President Obama’s call to curtail the power of lobbyists in Washington, new figures show a record amount of money was spent on federal lobbying in 2009. The Center for Responsive Politics puts the total at nearly $3.5 billion, a five percent increase over 2008. The pharmaceutical and health products industry spent nearly $267 million on lobbying, the greatest amount ever spent on lobbying efforts by a single industry. The Chamber of Commerce spent over $144 million dollars on lobbying, a 60 percent increase over 2008. Other big spenders on lobbying included Exxon Mobil, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, or Pharma, General Electric, Pfizer, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, AARP, American Medical Association, Chevron, the National Association of Realtors, and the American Beverage Association. Sheila Krumholz of the Center for Responsive Politics said, “Lobbying appears recession proof. Even when companies are scaling back other operations, many view lobbying as a critical tool in protecting their future interests.”
The New York Times reports Wall Street tactics akin to the ones that fostered subprime mortgages in America have worsened the European financial crisis by enabling governments to hide their mounting debts. One deal created by Goldman Sachs helped Greece obscure billions in debt from the budget overseers in Brussels. Goldman Sachs is said to be the most important of more than a dozen banks used by the Greek government to manage its national debt using derivatives.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accused Iran of heading toward a “military dictatorship” and warned it poses an international threat. During a speech in Qatar, Clinton claimed the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is seizing control of large swaths of Iran’s political, military and economic establishment. On Sunday, she urged Iran to reconsider what she described as Iran’s “dangerous” nuclear policy. Clinton spoke at the US-Islamic World Forum in Qatar.
Hillary Clinton: “What does Iran have to hide? Why is Iran refusing to live up to its international obligations, which would lead to political and economic integration with the international community that would actually benefit the Iranian people? Iran leaves the international community little choice but to impose greater costs for its provocative steps. Together, we are encouraging Iran to reconsider its dangerous policy decisions.”
While the US is threatening to impose new sanctions on Iran, the Iranian human rights attorney Shirin Ebadi said only political sanctions should be considered, not economic sanctions.
Shirin Ebadi: “As I said earlier, I am against economic sanctions and military attacks. However, if the Iranian government continues to violate human rights and continues to ignore people’s demands, then I would start thinking about political sanctions.”
The Israeli military has announced it will reroute part of the West Bank separation wall two-and-a-half years after the Israel Supreme Court ordered the state to return land to Palestinian farmers in the village of Bilin. Israeli activist Jonathan Pollak said years of weekly protests in Bilin have forced Israel to reroute the wall.
Jonathan Pollak: “It took two-and-a-half years since the court decision and twice the state being held in contempt for this to happen, and it should be clear that the only reason that this is happening now is five years of persistent struggle and sacrifice by the people of Bilin. This is an attempt — this is an Israeli attempt to pacify resistance. And while being a victory, this is only a partial victory, and it should be clear that the resistance to the wall will continue wherever it is built, in Bilin as well, until the wall is dismantled entirely.”
In other news from the region, a British journalist has been arrested in Gaza. Paul Martin is a documentary filmmaker. Hamas officials have ordered him to be held for fifteen days.
A leading Burmese pro-democracy activist has been released after seven years in detention. The eighty-two-year-old Tin Oo helped found the National League for Democracy with Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who remains under house arrest. Meanwhile, UN human rights envoy Tomás Ojea Quintana arrived in Burma today for a five-day visit to evaluate progress on human rights in the military-ruled nation. Burma still holds an estimated 2,100 political prisoners.
In science news, new research shows the world’s oceans are becoming more acidic than at any time in the past 65 million years due to increasing levels of greenhouse gas emissions. Scientists at the University of Bristol in England say oceans are likely to become so acidic in coming centuries that they will become uninhabitable for vast swaths of life.
Health insurer Anthem Blue Cross has postponed its much-criticized plan to raise rates by 39 percent for individual policyholders. Anthem is a California-based subsidiary of the health insurance giant WellPoint, which earned $2.7 billion in the last quarter of 2009.
In labor news, one of the nation’s largest forestry companies has agreed to pay $2.75 million to settle a lawsuit filed by more than 2,000 foreign guestworkers. The immigrant workers said they were cheated out of the wages they earned planting trees for the company, Superior Forestry. It is one of the largest settlements ever reached under the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act. Tim Freilich of the Legal Aid Justice Center in Virginia said, “Employers cannot exploit these workers with impunity. The workers have rights, and they have a voice. This huge win shows the workers can defend their rights.”
And in Florida, over 2,500 people gathered on the state’s beaches Saturday to protest offshore oil drilling in an event called Hands Across the Sand. Protests were held on over sixty beaches across the state. Florida is considering lifting a twenty-year ban on offshore oil drilling.