- Obama faces long odds in Afghanistan bet
- Angry Greeks say new taxes to hurt middle class, again
- Obama seeks to rally support for Afghan troop plan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In order to win its high-stakes wager in Afghanistan, the Obama administration must ensure security trends can hold, peace talks gain traction and governance improves -- all with fewer troops and less time.
If it cannot, the United States and its partners may join other world powers who tried, and failed, to tame that restless nation in the past.
"It is all too clear that they are also in a race -- a race against time, against resources, and the enemy -- that they simply may not win," wrote Anthony Cordesman, a security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
On Wednesday, President Barack Obama unveiled a plan to start bringing U.S. troops home at a faster pace than proposed by the Pentagon, a decision that has alarmed top U.S. brass who fear it could squander military gains.
Obama said he would pull out a third of the 100,000 troops now in Afghanistan by the end of next summer. The remainder will come home at a steady pace.
Obama's advisors defended his plan on Thursday, saying his decision to send an extra 30,000 troops to Afghanistan last year had delivered both real and symbolic victories, pushing the Taliban out of their southern heartland.
The president, visiting troops of the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, N.Y., said, "We have turned a corner where we can begin to bring back some of our troops."
But southern Afghanistan is still far from stable, and the picture is less encouraging elsewhere. Violence has intensified along the rugged eastern border, and even the top U.S. military officer warned in blunt terms on Thursday that conditions may deteriorate if rigorous conditions are not met.
"The progress we have made, though considerable, can still be reversed without our constant leadership, the contributions of our partners ... or a more concerted effort by the Afghan government," Admiral Mike Mullen said.
Even in areas that epitomize the modest successes Obama's troop-intensive strategy has achieved, such as southern Kandahar, U.S. soldiers there are already thinly spread and fret about what a rapid drawdown will mean.
Military commanders will likely have to withdraw significant numbers of troops at the height of next summer's fighting season in order to meet a September deadline.
"This really, really constrains the military in 2012," said Ronald Neumann, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan.
Obama's security strategy also rests on the West's ability to create a competent local fighting force, which virtually all observers agree is key to Afghanistan's long-term stability. The speedier drawdown will mean fewer U.S. troops mentoring Afghans.
Even as a gradual security transition begins, there is little evidence local security forces will be ready to secure Afghanistan any time soon.
NO EASY TASK
Yet the obstacles the Obama administration faces off the battlefield make its military challenges look straightforward. A decade and billions of dollars in Western aid efforts have made little headway in creating a stable Afghan state.
U.S. ties with Afghan President Hamid Karzai are at best testy and at worst openly hostile. Corruption has reached epidemic levels; the economy remains in shambles; the booming opium trade continues to fund insurgents.
On Thursday, a special court set up by Karzai after a fraud-marred election last year threw out results for about a quarter of Afghanistan's parliament.
Far from being seen as a step toward ending months of political paralysis, the move deepened questions about the credibility of Afghan officialdom.
Even as Washington rushes to show results from its 'civilian surge' of diplomats and aid workers, an impatient U.S. Congress may well slash the budget for Afghan aid efforts it feels have fallen flat.
Obama's plan for gradually shrinking the U.S. footprint will also depend on Washington's ability to foster a political settlement with the Taliban, which may choose to wait out dwindling appetite for U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan.
"The bottom line is no number of troops will resolve the challenge of Afghanistan," John Kerry, the influential Democratic senator, said on Thursday.
Both the United States and Britain have confirmed they are reaching out to the Taliban. But earlier efforts to get peace negotiations underway have failed and it is hard to gauge the likelihood the secretive initiative will succeed.
If other conflicts are any guide, it could take far longer to clinch a peace deal than U.S. politicians are willing to wait as they seek to refocus on the flagging economy and other domestic priorities.
Yet officials concede that biggest challenge for the United States in Afghanistan is not in Afghanistan. Without progress in curbing militant groups operating in neighboring Pakistan, it is unlikely a wobbly Afghan state can survive.
U.S. officials are leaning hard on Islamabad after last month's raid that killed Osama bin Laden deepened suspicions in Washington about Pakistan's complicity with militants. Plans for a relatively swift U.S. drawdown, Neumann said, will require more Pakistan action against militants.
"But if they think we're leaving, why should they do more of what we want?" he asked.
(Writing by Missy Ryan; Editing by Anthony Boadle)
Copyright © 2011 Reuters
ATHENS (Reuters) - Greeks seething after two years of belt-tightening reacted in anger on Thursday against a new round of tax rises and spending cuts worth some 3.8 billion euros which they said would again hit honest taxpayers hardest.
Coming on top of a 10-15 percent reduction on pensions and salaries over the last year and a half, the raft of new measures announced by Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos will cut average earnings by a further 3-4 percent, analysts said.
People on the streets of Athens, who have protested for weeks over the government's plan to carve out savings of 28 billion euros by 2015, were livid at the measures they said once again failed to tackle rampant tax evasion and corruption.
"These measures aren't fair. Shop owners who pay their taxes are treated the same way as those who don't know what a cash register looks like," said Kostas Batsoulis, 37, a restaurant owner in central Athens.
"It would be better to sack 10,000 civil servants rather than the 1 million private sector employees who are being sacrificed right now," he added.
Unions and parties were also quick to slam the measures, saying slapping more and more taxes on the middle class was no way to kick-start an economy which has plunged into its deepest recession in 37 years.
"These people have lost their mind," said Ilias Iliopoulos, general secretary of the ADEDY public sector union. "These measures are hitting the same people, making them even poorer."
Unions have announced nationwide strikes for Tuesday and Wednesday, when the mid-term plan goes to parliament, and huge protests are expected in Athens and other cities.
In Syntagma square outside parliament, where protesters have camped for weeks to oppose the fresh wave of austerity, thousands gathered in the streets on Thursday, beating drums and blowing whistles but their protest remained peaceful.
"HYPOCRISY MUST STOP"
Stathis Anestis, spokesman for the largest labour union federation GSEE, said the measures were particularly unfair because they once again failed to address the chronic problem of tax evasion, seen as the root of most of Greece's fiscal ills.
"This hypocrisy must finally stop in Greece," he said. "The rich doctor who sees 20-30 patients a day declares an annual income of 5,000 euros a year and the worker who can hide nothing is asked to pull the country out of the crisis?"
Venizelos said a "solidarity tax" ranging from 1 to 5 percent will be slapped on annual incomes over 12,000 euros, the self-employed will be hit with a 300 euro levy and heating oil tax will increase as well.
Analysts said that for the average annual Greek income of about 20,000 euros, this means a 700-800 euro loss, without counting heating costs and the levy on the self-employed.
Michalis Mihalides, 33, a press distribution worker who has a 3-month-old baby, said his family had already cut spending to the very basics to make ends meet and the new measures were spurring him to protest on the streets.
"What bothers me more than anything is that those who should pay, won't pay once again," he said. "It makes me mad because this crisis is not my fault. I didn't steal."
The main conservative opposition New Democracy party, which opposes the 110 billion IMF/EU bailout deal that saved Greece from bankruptcy last year, said the measures will push the economy further into recession.
"Venizelos' deal can be summed up in three words: taxes, taxes, taxes! Even on those who earn 570 euros a month. The measures even more painful and ineffective, will crush the middle class and finish off the poor," said Ioannis Vroutsis, a New Democracy spokesman.
(Writing by Dina Kyriakidou; Editing by Alistair Lyon)
Copyright © 2011 Reuters
FORT DRUM, N.Y. (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama defended his planned Afghanistan troop drawdown on Thursday, as he sought to rally support during a visit to an Army base in upstate New York.
Speaking to about 200 soldiers, Obama stood by the blueprint he unveiled in a televised speech on Wednesday to remove 10,000 troops from Afghanistan this year and a total of 33,000 by the end of next summer, a pace some top military officials have said is too aggressive.
"We have turned a corner where we can begin to bring back some of our troops. We're not doing it precipitously. We're going to do it in a steady way to make sure that the gains that all of you helped to bring about are going to be sustained," he told soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division, who listened mostly in silence.
Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and General David Petraeus, top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said in congressional testimony that Obama's drawdown was riskier than they recommended but that they backed the strategy to start winding down the nearly decade-old war.
U.S. public support for the war has fallen sharply since U.S. special forces killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in neighboring Pakistan.
As he seeks re-election in 2012, Obama wants to show Americans he is crafting an endgame for the costly war and putting his focus on the troubled economy and high unemployment, the U.S. electorate's chief concerns.
Some 25.3 million Americans watched Obama's speech on Wednesday, which was broadcast live on nine U.S. television networks, ratings company Nielsen said on Thursday.
War-weariness has also started to set in among many U.S. troops and their loved ones.
The advocacy group Military Families Speak Out said in response to Obama's Wednesday announcement that the United States should get out of Afghanistan even more quickly.
"While we applaud any service members returning home, this plan maintains 70,000 troops on the ground in Afghanistan through 2014," the group said on its website.
"Three more years is unacceptable for a military community who have already suffered through 10 years of war, multiple deployments, deteriorating troop morale, and extremely high rates of suicide and post-traumatic stress."
More than 1,600 U.S. troops have been killed in Afghanistan, according to official figures.
(Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick in Washington and Jill Serjeant in Los Angeles; Editing by Paul Simao)
Copyright © 2011 Reuters
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