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What The Ebola Virus Is Trying To Teach Us

Even if Africa’s Ebola emergency never mutates into a global catastrophe, those of us who live in the world’s most fortunate country ought to consider what this fearsome virus can teach us. The lessons are quite obvious at this point – and contain implications that are political in the most urgent sense.

The Tea Party mania for shrinking federal budgets and rejecting international organizations — both of which are bedrock policy among the current Republican leadership – is not only bad for our national prestige but exceptionally dangerous to our health. At the insistence of House leaders whose answer to every problem has been cutting government and reducing taxes, the United States has steadily starved the budgets of the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization.

The disturbing consequence is that in both this country and the world, humanity lacks the full arsenal of weapons needed to combat Ebola and other potentially devastating outbreaks of tropical disease.

Politicians who identify themselves as “conservative” have failed in their duty to conserve the nation’s public health infrastructure, built over decades of hard scientific work with many millions of taxpayer dollars, precisely to cope with an emergency such as Ebola. Instead they have proposed budgets that would decimate every federal agency that protects us, including the CDC.  And the budget deal that they enacted, which depends on sequestration, has led to severe, ham-handed cutbacks in the programs that protect us.

Testifying in Congress a few weeks ago, Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health said that sequestration has inflicted “a significant impact. It has both in an acute and a chronic, insidious way, eroded our ability to respond…to these emerging threats.” He said that the cuts have been “particularly damaging” to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which he directs – and which is responsible, he noted, for “responding on a dime to an emerging infectious disease threat.”

Specifically, sequestration forced the NIH to shave its budget by $1.55 billion, or 5 percent, in 2013, according to Mother Jones magazine. That may not sound like a lot – and it is nothing in terms of closing deficits – but it can be ruinous during an emergency when an agency is suddenly scrambling for every dollar.

The CDC’s National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases – meaning those that can be transmitted between species – also suffered severe cuts. The center lost $13 million last year, according to Dr. Beth Bell, its director, who pleaded with Congress to increase funding sharply.

Sequestration took a similar toll on U.S. spending for international aid – a budget category that American voters tend to assume is roughly 20 times more than the measly 1 percent or so that it actually represents. The Tea Party mentality that wildly exaggerates how much we spend abroad is just as ignorant about the importance and usefulness of that spending.

“If even modest investments had been made to build up a public health infrastructure in West Africa previously, the current Ebola epidemic could have been detected earlier, and it could have been identified and contained,” testified Dr. Bell. But the sequester cut global health programs by $411 million and the U.S. Agency for International Development, which oversees most of our foreign aid, by $289 million.

The World Health Organization, an agency of the United Nations that forms the front line of disease defense in Africa, has likewise suffered massive budget reductions, at the very moment when its services may be most needed. In 2010, the United States paid $280 million toward the WHO’s operating costs; by 2013, that contribution was cut by nearly a quarter, to $215 million. But much of that money is earmarked for specific programs, when what the WHO needs in an emergency like Ebola is unrestricted funding.

Cutting funds to the WHO surely thrilled congressional Republicans, Tea Party leaders, and everyone else in this country who expresses irrational hostility toward the UN. But that was a very perilous way to gratify our country’s isolationist faction, which evidently cannot understand that this is one planet – and that the fates of its peoples are inseparably joined.

If we want to improve our security, if we want our children to live in safety, it is long past time to rid Washington of the partisan enemies of strong, competent government and international cooperation. We don’t yet know the full cost of their mindless actions, but if we are unlucky, it could be incalculable.

United States Remembers Aid Workers Killed In Conflicts

Washington (AFP) — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry appealed Tuesday for better protection for aid workers in conflicts around the world as the number killed hit a record in 2013.

Figures published Tuesday by the consultancy group Humanitarian Outcomes said 155 relief staff were killed last year, mainly in Afghanistan, Syria, South Sudan, Sudan, and Pakistan.

“As the world’s largest donor of humanitarian assistance, the United States remains steadfast in our commitment to doing everything we can to provide for humanitarians’ safety and security,” Kerry said.

“But today of all days, we remember the men and women who pay the ultimate price as a result of their devotion,” he said, in a statement to mark World Humanitarian Day.

The day was set aside to coincide with the 11th anniversary of the 2003 bombing of the U.N. office in Baghdad, which killed 22 U.N. employees.

The U.N. Security Council, in a special session Tuesday, discussed ways to better protect aid workers and heard testimony that local aid workers have borne the brunt of the risk in dangerous areas.

AFP Photo/Rob Griffith

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U.S. Aid To Afghanistan Exceeds Marshall Plan In Costs, Not Results

By Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times

The United States has now spent more on the reconstruction of Afghanistan than it did on the Marshall Plan that lifted Western Europe from the ruins of World War II. But it can expect far less return on its investment in the still-unstable Central Asian nation, a Pentagon auditor reports.

Afghanistan is mired in political crisis and will remain dependent on foreign donors, primarily the United States, for years to come, writes John F. Sopko, special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, in his latest quarterly report to Congress.

U.S. spending on the Afghanistan nation-building project over the last dozen years now exceeds $104 billion, surpassing the $103.4 billion current-dollar value of Marshall Plan expenditures, which helped rebuild European nations after World War II. The spending helped a vanquished Germany emerge as the economic engine of Western Europe.

“SIGAR calculates that by the end of 2014, the United States will have committed more funds to reconstruct Afghanistan, in inflation-adjusted terms, than it spent on 16 European countries after World War II under the Marshall Plan,” says the report.

The 259-page account features a photograph of a pile of metal frames from school furniture in Nangarhar province from which the wood was stripped and burned for heat.

Sopko’s accounting of the record U.S. foreign investment makes it clear that the proceeds from Afghanistan will fall far short of the German experience.

Afghanistan is beset by corruption, tribal conflicts, and a resurgent Taliban poised to strike government targets once U.S. troops end their combat mission in December. The Islamic militants chased from Afghanistan by the 2001 U.S.-led invasion have stepped up attacks on the fledgling Afghan National Army, inflicting many of the 2,330 deaths suffered by the force over the last two years, the auditor noted.

Almost two-thirds of America’s investment in Afghanistan’s reconstruction, $62 billion, has gone to building up its military and police forces, which are now at a level that far overwhelms the country’s ability to pay for them. Even if the government succeeds in its plan to reduce the size of its security forces by 35 percent by 2017, the projected annual $4.1-billion cost for the 228,500 citizens under arms is almost double what the country collects in tax revenue, Sopko pointed out.

The Afghan government approved $7.6 billion in spending this fiscal year, despite anticipated revenue of $2.8 billion.

“This year, donor grants will make up most of the shortfall, but aid to Afghanistan has been falling since 2010, and history suggests it will fall even more sharply after U.S. and coalition troops are withdrawn,” the report notes.

The predicted donor fatigue after U.S.-led NATO forces leave would coincide with a reduced ability for U.S. auditors to evaluate how Afghans are using their U.S. aid, the inspector general noted.

A companion report to Congress this week warned that lax oversight and inventory practices for the $626 million worth of U.S. weapons delivered to Afghan soldiers and police could mean weapons will fall into the hands of militants.

Sopko’s office, known by its acronym SIGAR, said it was initiating “a new series of lessons-learned reports” from the most expensive foreign reconstruction effort underwritten by the U.S. taxpayers.

The report detailed billions spent on ill-considered agriculture and infrastructure projects unsuitable to Afghanistan’s terrain and culture. Among them was a failed attempt to curb opium poppy cultivation to deprive the Taliban of a vital source of income.

The inspector general also alluded to the unfinished work of democracy-building in Afghanistan, where two rival presidential candidates claim to have prevailed in the multistage election that began in April. A recount of more than 8 million ballots cast in the June runoff is under way in hopes of determining the winner between former World Bank official Ashraf Ghani and former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, who had beaten Ghani in an earlier election round.

Until a successor to President Hamid Karzai is inaugurated, the United States cannot get the necessary endorsement from Kabul for a plan to leave behind a U.S. force of nearly 10,000 troops to train Afghan security forces.

AFP Photo/Massoud Hossaini

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Pakistan Says No Insurgent Groups Will Be Spared In Its North Waziristan Offensive

By Aoun Sahi and Shashank Bengali, Los Angeles Times

ISLAMABAD — A six-week Pakistani army offensive has succeeded in disrupting the militant groups that have long enjoyed free rein in the rugged North Waziristan tribal region along the border with Afghanistan, Obama administration officials say.

But proof of the operation’s success, they say, will be whether groups such as the notorious Haqqani network are allowed to reconstitute themselves in North Waziristan or elsewhere and again plot attacks against U.S.-led forces in neighboring Afghanistan or elsewhere.

Previous Pakistani offensives in the tribal belt have either ignored groups like the Haqqanis — who are blamed for deadly attacks against U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan — or allowed them to return. U.S. military officials believe that top levels of Pakistan’s security establishment back the Haqqanis as a proxy force to maintain influence in Afghanistan.

But with most U.S. forces withdrawing from Afghanistan at the end of the year, the U.S. military’s ability to battle the Haqqani network is expected to diminish sharply. Obama administration officials have pressed Pakistan’s military leaders in a series of meetings this month to ensure the group does not escape the current operation.

“We keep telling them they must go after all the terrorists and that they cannot cherry-pick,” said a senior U.S. official who requested anonymity to discuss the sensitive talks. “We’ve been quite emphatic about that.”

Pakistan insists that no insurgent groups will be spared in the offensive, which began in mid-June and has resulted in the deaths of more than 500 militants and the seizure of large weapons caches and bomb-making factories, according to unconfirmed Pakistani army reports.

But some officials say that insurgents fled the area before the start of the offensive, which had been rumored for several months.

U.S. officials have not received photographs or other visual evidence from Pakistan showing it has directly targeted the Haqqani network. In the end, the senior U.S. official said, “We end up having a good conversation but the bottom line is we have to be convinced there is no reconstituting of terrorist facilities and safe havens.”

Some analysts believe that Pakistan is taking action now because of a provision in the 2015 Pentagon budget that could withhold hundreds of millions of dollars in counter-terrorism funding unless Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel certifies that Pakistan has “significantly disrupted the safe haven and freedom of movement of the Haqqani network.”

Now that they have begun such an operation, “the Pakistanis are making an argument in Washington that they should be given continued coalition support,” C. Christine Fair, author of “Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War,” told the Times of India in an interview this week. Pakistan has received $28 billion in U.S. military and economic aid since 2002, and additional expenditures would be “outrageous,” she said.

Pakistan has not given a timetable for the offensive, which began with airstrikes and has proceeded to ground operations in Miram Shah and Mir Ali, the largest towns in North Waziristan, which are now mostly controlled by the military.

Pakistani officials declined to comment specifically on the Haqqani network, which analysts regard as one of the most experienced insurgent groups fighting in Afghanistan. The group, led by Sirajuddin Haqqani, is under the umbrella of the Afghan Taliban but is seen as being more closely linked to al-Qaida’s central leadership.

U.S. military leaders have long believed that Pakistan did not target the Haqqani network before because it does not carry out attacks in Pakistan. Afghan authorities also accuse Pakistan of sparing the Haqqani network in the current offensive, arguing that no senior commander in the group has been reported killed.

Last week, a spokesman for the Afghan intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security, alleged that Pakistan’s security establishment had shifted Haqqani fighters to safe places before the operation began, prompting swift denials from Pakistani officials.

At a news conference the next day, Pakistan Foreign Secretary Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry said Afghanistan, whose army is struggling to contain a domestic Taliban insurgency, should take action against militants fleeing over the border from Pakistan.

“It is … our expectation that action would be taken on the Afghan side to check the fleeing terrorists and not to allow Afghan territory to be used by anti-Pakistan elements,” Chaudhry said.

AFP Photo/Rizwan Tabassum

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