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Chatting Up the Taliban
When is a win not a win? When it’s in Afghanistan, of course.

No Room for Reporters
The rich and powerful are invited to Bush’s fancy DC fundraiser. The press is not.

Free at Last in Tulia
Twelve innocent African American men were just walked free in Tulia. Is anything else changing?

Chatting Up the Taliban
In the days following the Sept. 11 attacks, the Bush administration issued the Taliban an ultimatum: give up Osama bin Laden or else. When the mullahs refused, the U.S. let bombs rain down on Afghanistan. No negotiations, no compromises. In short order, victory was declared, Afghanistan was added to the ‘Win’ column, and the nation’s attention was turned to Iraq.

The Taliban never really went away, though. Instead, they just melted into the hills, or crossed the snowy passes into Pakistan. Their command structures remained more or less intact and, in any case, there was no shortage of people who shared their anger at the Westerners suddenly holding sway over Afghanistan. It was just a matter of time, many observers predicted, before the Taliban returned to the fight.

And so they have. As the Taliban is beginning its comeback, the White House is now on the defensive and trying to cut a deal with the resurgent mullahs — the same men whom Donald Rumsfeld declared vanquished just last month. The number of attacks on US and international forces in Afghanistan has surged in recent months. The country is so dangerous that a full third of it is again off-limits to United Nations aid workers. A suicide bombing in Kabul last week killed four German peacekeepers, casting doubt on the security situation in the capital — the only part of the country that could plausibly have been called stable until now — and leaflets have appeared threatening “ non-stop suicide attacks” against US and British forces and their Afghan allies.

The Pentagon attributes the spike in attacks to the balmy weather (which, to military minds, equals more insurgents), and Afghan president Hamid Karzai blames foreign terrorists. But there is little doubt, as the Christian Science Monitor‘s Scott Baldauf and Owais Tohid reported last month, that the Taliban is back and perhaps stronger than ever.

“‘The general idea that was being put forward by Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld last week, is that the Afghan military, backed by US forces, is engaged in mopping up some remnants of the past — that is not true,’ says Barnett Rubin, an expert on Afghanistan at New York University. ‘They [the Taliban] are now organizing for a new offensive, and they are still getting some support from Pakistan. Even if Pakistan is not cooperating directly, it is not cooperating in efforts to end the support that is coming from Pakistani territory.'”

An Afghan government force won a skirmish with Taliban fighters earlier this month, but as the London Telegraph‘s David Orr reports, a recent US military operation, the biggest in over a year, netted just a few prisoners and made no contact with its increasingly elusive enemy.

“The American troops involved in Operation Dragon Fury, however, encountered no significant enemy groups. To the frustration of the young soldiers involved, not a shot was fired during the three-day operation.

As the dust settled on another search-and-attack mission, the long-term ability of US forces and their allies to destroy the Taliban was again thrown into doubt.

Lieutenant-Colonel Douglas Lafforge, a senior officer at Bagram, said: ‘ … Our objective in Dragon Fury was to enter territory previously frequented by enemy forces. We didn’t run into large numbers of them, so the mission was a success.’

He conceded, however, that the Taliban might have begun to move in smaller groups to evade its pursuers more easily.”

The Lieutenant-Colonel’s spin belies the facts on the ground: the US is facing an uphill fight against a rejuvenated enemy. And while there have been no public pronouncements from Washington — and none are likely, given Afghanistan’s official status as a ‘win’ for the Bush administration — the White House now appears to be suing for peace with the Taliban. As Syed Saleem Shahzad writes in the Asia Times, US negotiators have initiated a series of secret meetings with Taliban leaders, brokered by Pakistan’s shadowy security service, the ISI. The US is demanding, among other things, the removal of Mullah Omar as the Taliban’s supreme leader and the expulsion of all Arab fighters from the Taliban.

This time around, however, the US might not be in a position to issue ultimatums. According to Shahzad, the new Taliban is four times stronger than the Mujahedeen force that drove the Soviets out of Afghanistan — and increasingly aware that it has the upper hand.

“Apparently, the Taliban refused the first condition point blank, but showed some flexibility on the other terms. As such, this first preliminary contact made little headway. It is not known whether there will be further meetings, but given the fact that the reason for staging the talks in the first place remains unchanged, more contact can be expected.”

So much for no negotiations, no compromises.

Bush’s Tight Guest List
On Tuesday, President Bush launched his fundraising campaign for the 2004 elections with a $2,000-a-head gala event in Washington. In the next two weeks Bush will be making stops in nine cities where he is expected to raise himself a multi-million dollar war chest. Analysts predict that tonight Bush is expected to raise at least $4 million in a little less than two hours.

In the 2000 election Bush gained a reputation for raising enormous sums of money while putting in short hours. Diego Ibarguen of Knight Ridder reports that Bush typically stays at fundraisers just long enough to make an appearance.

In 2000 Bush built a network of fundraisers, dubbed “pioneers,” who were all responsible for contributing at least $100,000. This year Bush has promised to raise a herd of “rangers”– people who manage to raise $200,000. Even better — anyone who can raise $250,000 is dubbed a “regent”.

Although the Bush campaign has not announced its immediate fundraising goals, they have announced their intention to raise between $150 and $170 million by November 2004. That’s quite a bit more than the $101 million he collected for his last campaign (some news outlets even expect that $100 mil to double).

The campaign is already operating under a strange veil of secrecy. Despite the fact that tonight’s fundraiser is being held the luxurious DC Hilton, the Bush admin has told the media that there is “not enough space” to have reporters roaming around. Bush spokesmen have announced that the event is only open to “pool coverage” (a common practice where TV networks share resources when press access is limited at events). However, ABC’s web blog, the Note reminds us that the Hilton is a popular spot for fundraisers — having hosted hundreds of presidential events — and until today the media has always been invited. In addition whoever is covering the event must “enter and depart with the president.” In practice, that’ll mean that one or two cameras will have one viewpoint — no pesky print reporters chit-chatting and digging up real infromation. You have to wonder what the president is worried the press will find at an event where fat cats will be donating millions of dollars to his presidential campaign.

Meanwhile, John Edwards, a Democratic candidate from North Carolina, held a fundraiser last week with a entry fee of $50-a-head.

But the administration isn’t even pretending to play in that ballpark — Bush’s campaign will be run on huge private donations with the least oversight possible. The Bush campaign has already announced that it will forfeit federal matching funds for the primary. The move frees the campaign from spending restrictions that come with the federal funds, allowing Bush to spend the money freely. This gives him a serious edge over the nine Democratic candidates.

White House spokesman, the tight-lipped Ari Fleischer once again explained the genius of Bush’s strategy.

“[E]very day, there are nine Democratic candidates who are running against the President, saying negative things about the President. And part of the President’s efforts next year will be to rebut the statements that will increasingly be made about the President, all from a negative point of view, and to make sure that he has the resources to be able to rebut some of these arguments, and to be able to make arguments of his own.”

Bush wants to have the resources to make his own call, huh? Too bad tonight’s fundraiser won’t offer those resources to media.

Free at Last in Tulia
In Tulia, Texas, 12 African-Americans prisoners were freed when a retired state District Judge ordered them released due to wrongful conviction. More than ten percent of the small Texas town’s black population had been arrested in 1999, based on allegations by Texan undercover investigator Tom Coleman that they were involved in the sale and/or use of illicit drugs. No drugs were ever found, and no money, or audio and video surveillance was ever provided as evidence. But Coleman, a caucasian, testified under oath that there was a booming clandestine cocaine ring thriving within the town’s black community. Coleman now faces charges of perjury, according to the Associated Press.

Coleman’s false testimony led the US Department of Justice and the Texas Attorney General’s office to investigate. Some of the wrongfully convicted ended up serving four years in prison. Though the prisoners can now return to their homes and families, they are still waiting for the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to clear their names. While Coleman is now under indictment for charges of perjury, many believe that the case is indicative of deep-seated problems within the state and even federal justice systems.

The Editors of the Austin-American Statesman assert that “there just isn’t a happy face that can be put on the disruption of this many lives and the waste of so much public time and money.” Appalled by the state’s recent track record, the Statesman Editors question Texas law enforcement from the top down. They cite recent reports of errors at Fort Worth and Houston crime labs, accusations that narcotics officers are framing defendants, and even Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s comments in defense of capital punishment:

“That kind of news that throws a pall over the legitimate work of honest, diligent officers throughout the state. Moreover, the Tulia cases call into serious question claims made by Gov. Rick Perry and others that the state has never executed an innocent person. If the system takes short cuts in drug cases, why not in capital murder prosecutions?”

Outside of Texas, Tulia has prompted charges that the false convictions are part of a pattern. An NAACP attorney told Phil Mager of United Press International that “inadequate indigent defense systems, unchecked prosecutorial misconduct and racial bias,” are just some of the problems with the nation’s criminal justice system. Texas Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) proposes that law enforcement launch investigations via an “innocence commission,” comparable to investigations conducted by the National Transportation Safety Board following plane crashes.

Many critics agree that despite internal corruption casting “a pall over the legitimate work of honest, diligent officers throughout the state,” the covert racism within law enforcement is even more disillusioning and more difficult to fight. The Statesman’s Eds point out that in the Tulia cases, “most of the defendants were African Americans, so white police officers and white jurors were prepared to believe the worst about them.” But more discouraging, as Cynthia Tucker, editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution points out, are the pervasive statistics surrounding the incarceration of nonviolent criminals, a disproportionate majority of whom are young black men, who are “arrested and confined in numbers grossly out of line with their use or sale of drugs”:

“While Tulia is unusual for its obvious law enforcement misconduct, blacks routinely receive a harsher justice than whites. A white drug offender convicted for the first time would be more likely to get probation than a black defendant guilty of the same offense, research shows.

As a result, one-third of black men between 20 and 34 are behind bars, according to Allen Beck, chief prison demographer for the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. And that stunning statistic minimizes the overall blow: Nearly 30 percent of black men will be incarcerated during their lives, Beck said.”

Federal and state investigations will likely serve to censure Coleman. But his supervisors, along with the judges and juries and lawyers, are not being held accountable. The justice system at large, which allowed for the conviction of 13 African-Americans on no evidence, shows little indication that it is on a path to change.


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