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Major World News Stories of 2009


The Taliban

The Taliban

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Afghanistan

Presidential Election Marred by Fraud

The situation in Afghanistan deteriorated markedly throughout 2009, with a sharp increase in American deaths; escalating attacks by al-Qaeda militants; a resurgence of the Taliban, particularly in the Pashtun regions in the southeast; and diminished support for the war both at home and abroad. Many pundits wondered if U.S. involvement in Afghanistan might become President Barack Obama's Vietnam. Indeed, the word "quagmire" began popping up in descriptions of the U.S.-led war.

When President Barack Obama announced his strategy for Afghanistan in early December, he directly addressed this comparison.

"Unlike Vietnam, we are joined by a broad coalition of 43 nations that recognizes the legitimacy of our action. Unlike Vietnam, we are not facing a broad-based popular insurgency. And most importantly, unlike Vietnam, the American people were viciously attacked from Afghanistan, and remain a target for those same extremists. To abandon this area now—and to rely only on efforts against al Qaeda from a distance—would significantly hamper our ability to keep the pressure on al Qaeda, and create an unacceptable risk of additional attacks on our homeland and our allies."

Obama Is Circumspect in Developing a New Strategy

Obama's speech was a long time coming. For more than three months, as conditions continued to erode in Afghanistan and President Hamid Karzai failed to stem the rampant corruption in the government and poppy production, which fuels the drug trade, Obama worked with his national security team to devise—and revise—a strategy that would satisfy those who argue against an escalation, citing the limited prospects for success there and the cost of maintaining the war, especially given the weak economy and ballooning deficits, and proponents of the war who contend that withdrawal from Afghanistan or failure to increase troops there would compromise American security.

Obama's strategy seems to be an attempt to placate both sides. About 30,000 troops will be deployed to Afghanistan—some before the end of 2009—to thwart a resurgent Taliban, help train Afghan troops, and bring security to population centers. For those wary of the escalation, Obama said he plans to begin withdrawing troops in July 2011. The number of troops is less than the 40,000 requested by Lt. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who took over as top commander of American forces in May 2009. In a confidential report leaked to the press in October, McChrystal said that without the troops, the mission in Afghanistan would will "likely result in failure."

Obama was clear about the cost of war, saying the escalation will likely have a price tag of $30 billion. Government estimates indicate it costs about $1 million per year for every U.S. soldier stationed in Afghanistan.

The speech, of course, elicited both praise and condemnation. "Setting a draw-down date before this surge has even begun is a mistake, and it sends a mixed message to both our friends and our enemies regarding our long-term commitment to success," said Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas. Criticism, in fact, was bipartisan. "I see no good reason for us to send another 30,000 or more troops to Afghanistan when we have so many pressing issues–like our economy–to deal with in this country," said Rep. Louise Slaughter, a New York Democrat.

Election Morass Complicates U.S. Plan for Afghanistan

Obama had hoped a smooth presidential election process in August would offer assurances to the U.S. public that Afghanistan was on a course toward stabilization and would in turn bolster support for the deployment of more troops. The election, however, proved to be an abject failure. Some 40 candidates challenged incumbent Hamid Karzai, with Abdullah Abdullah as the most formidable contender. Abdullah, who served under Karzai as minister of foreign affairs until 2006, ran as head of the United National Front. Early results put Karzai well ahead of Abdullah, but allegations of widespread and blatant fraud surfaced immediately. In September, the UN-backed Electoral Complaints Commission announced it had "clear and convincing evidence of fraud" and called for a partial recount. Complaints of fraud were particularly egregious in southern regions of Afghanistan, where Karzai drew most of his support.

Election results released in October indicated that Karzai failed to garner 50% of the vote, necessitating a second-round election. Karzai agreed to participate in a runoff against Abdullah. About a week before the Nov. 7 second-round election, however, Abdullah withdrew from the race in protest of the Karzai administration's refusal to dismiss election officials who had been accused of taking part in the rampant fraud that marred the first round. Karzai was declared the winner on Nov. 5 and began his second five-year term as president.

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