Archive | May 4th, 2012

The dysfunctional ideology of Jewishness–Review of Gilad Atzmon’s book, The Wandering Who? A Study of Jewish Identity Politics

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By Mazin Qumsiyeh

www.redress.cc

Palestinian academic Mazin Qumsiyeh argues that Gilad Atzmon’s book The Wandering Who? provides invaluable insight into the ideology of Jewishness – crucial for understanding Israeli behaviour and the conflict in the Middle East – and urges people to engage with the ideas laid out in the book rather than dismiss it or seek to censor it.

About nine years ago I entertained the notion of writing a book on “group identities” so that I can explain the concepts that cause a lot of society’s ills.

Both World War I and World War II emanated from interpretations of nationalism (a group identity), and the conflict in Palestine mostly emanates from another group identity called Zionism. The horrors of the Crusades came from the group identity of Christendom. Nowadays, there is an issue with notions of “Islamism”, (political Islam) of the Osama Bin Laden variety. I am still exploring and reading on this issue from different authors and thus was intrigued to read the book by Gilad Atzmon, The Wandering Who? A Study of Jewish Identity Politics, that addresses this concept within Jewish communities.

Atzmon concludes from personal experience that he does not like Jewish group identity politics or any other form of what he calls “marginal group identity”. He starts by explaining his own upbringing as a third-generation Israeli whose grandfather was a member of the underground terror organization, the Irgun Gang, and how, through jazz music and a questioning mind, he “left chosenness behind to become an ordinary human being”.

Jews – people, religion and ideology

Atzmon is accused by many to be a “self-hating Jew” and an “anti-Semite”. To the former label he admits but he strongly objects to the second label. His book represents in many ways a clarification of why he believes the way he does. He says (page 15) that he makes a distinction between Jews (the people), Judaism (the religion), and Jewishness (the ideology). He has no problem with the first two but strongly argues against that third. He uses quotes to show that those who believe in this ideology put Jewishness above all other attributes. Thus, he understands Chaim Weizmann’s statement that “there are no English, French, German or American Jews, but only Jews living in England, France, Germany or America”. This third category (the ideology of Jewishness) that Weizmann belongs to, even when overlapping with the first (Jews as a people) or second category (Judaism) tends, according to Atzmon, to overwhelm all other and represent a strong marginal politics.

Using these definitions, Atzmon explains how and why Jewish identity politics was critical in the decision to go to war in Iraq, in the spying on the US by Jonathan Pollard, in the neo-conservative ideologies of Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, and even in economic decisions of Alan Greenspan. He makes clear that he does not see these things as Jewish conspiracies but merely independent actions based on a set of political/ideological discourse (Jewish identity politics).

My thought is that individual readers should not judge this on the basis of hearsay but should base their judgements on their own reading of the book. If one is persuaded by Atzmon’s analysis, then one could reach the radical conclusion that he makes, which is that “one can hardly endorse a universal philosophy while being identified politically as a Jew”. (page 39)

Zionism as “tribal Jewish preservation project”

According to Atzmon, the problems with marginal identity politics such as that of “Jewishness” and its alter-ego, Zionism, is that it is defined by negation: “The political Jew is always against something or set apart from something else. This is far from being an ideal recipe for a peaceful, ethical life driven by reconciliation and harmony.” (page 48)

But Atzmon goes further and here I believe is where his thesis draws the wrath of some in the establishment and overtly sensitive crowds: Zionism is a “tribal Jewish preservation project” and

within the Zionist framework, the Israelis colonize Palestine and the Jewish Diaspora is there to mobilize lobbies by recruiting international support. The neocons transform the American army into an Israeli mission force. Anti-Zionists of Jewish descent (and this may even include proud self-haters such as myself) are there to portray an image of ideological plurality and ethical concern. (page 70)

And in the secular Jewish political discourse, there is no need for God: political Jews are taught to value the Jewish collective and inflict damage on others in the name of this collective, according to Atzmon.

“…it is not the idea of being unethical that torments Israelis and their supporters, but the idea of being ‘caught out’ as such.”Gilad Atzmon

Many things he says do make sense even if we may quibble with other things. In explaining “pre-traumatic stress syndrome” he says that Jews are taught to anticipate negative things and that in this regard those who actually experienced the negative things (e.g. holocaust survivors) seem more rational and far less hateful of the other than the Jews who do not experience those directly. The latter may even invent events to justify their perpetual fear and hatred. I mulled on this as I thought of all the Zionists who lied, cheated, pressured, cajoled and threatened us and our friends and employers, and I contrasted those with fellow human beings who happen to have a Jewish background (including many holocaust survivors) who stood with us in fighting for human rights. He explained to me that in this area his study and personal experience were the most significant in his controversial findings.

Atzmon argues rather convincingly that “it is not the idea of being unethical that torments Israelis and their supporters, but the idea of being ‘caught out’ as such”. (page. 84) This phobia, according to Atzmon, explains the amount of death and destruction that Israel sows in its surroundings in an attempt to resolve or at least distract from this inner conflict between the tribal and the universal. But this only adds to the phobia for to Atzmon “the more they insist on loving themselves for who they think they are, the more they loath themselves for what they have become”. (page 86) He claims that that leaves three escape routes: total segregation, return to orthodoxy (religion) and flight from “Jewishness” (an option he had chosen).

Memes seeping into common discourse

I see in Atzmon writings a number of memes that are seeping into common discourse. A meme is a persuasive idea that spreads in a population like a useful gene spreads in a population. Some of those memes include:

  • The now well-established fact that Jews are not a racial group but an ideological-religious belief that spread many centuries ago among people of diverse backgrounds (this meme came from studies of the Khazars and others by authors like Arthur Koestler, Kevin Alan Brooks, Shlomo Sand and now Atzmon);
  • The idea of a conflict between chauvinistic nationalism and universal humanism;
  • The weird mixture of religious heritage/belief and tribal notions in Jewish political discourse;
  • The distorted use of archeological and other studies to support the political ideology of a connection between the Jews of today and the Israelites of the Bible; and
  • The use of the ideology of suffering as a quasi-religious belief that is no longer subject to normal historical examinations (and in fact shielded from such historical examination by laws).

In some places, one could argue that Atzmon goes too far in his conclusions or does not delve as deep as he could have in the nuances of identity politics. For example, he argues that those who identify themselves as politically Jewish but anti-Zionist serve the same goal as Zionist Jews by keeping the debate “within the family”. (page 102). In another chapter (Chapter 19), Atzmonanalyses the Book of Esther and its associated Purim holiday in a political modern context to argue that the lessons drawn from the modern emphasis on the Book of Esther (which does not mention God) is the need for Jews to rely on themselves and to get to positions of power in goyim (gentile) societies to further their own future. While that interpretation explains the Zionist lobbies in Western countries, some people who are not tribal in their thinking may draw other lessons from the Book of Esther or at least downplay it and emphasize other parts of the Torah.

In another place Atzmon questions the sincerity of a Zionist who was part of the group that collaborated with Hitler and who later reported to Lenni Brenner (a historian of the Nazi-Zionist collaboration) that they were wrong and that he is now an American with American loyalties. Atzmon thinks that this relates to the old edict “of being a Jew at home, and a gentile in the streets” (Moses Mendelssohn’s “Haskala Mantra”).

One could quibble with some of these notions, connections and conclusions. However, Atzmon’s opinions should be respected even if some of them are based on subjective judgments about other individuals’ emotions and motivations. That is because many of his opinions are also shaped by personal experiences.

Other parts of the book are intimate and personal and I do not see how Atzmon’s detractors can challenge him on that. For example, I fully agree with him that “fighting racism for real primarily entails opposing the racist within”. (p. 95) Each of us must fight the demons within before we challenge the demons without. I found these sections of the book, which discuss Atzmon’s own reflections on his past and evolution of his thinking, to be the most fascinating and informative.

As for the other (related) themes and notions presented in this fascinating book, I think this is a very important dialogue to have even if some of us may disagree with some interpretations.

The 130 years of Zionist colonization have devastated a native society and culture, resulting in seven million refugees of a total of 11 million (the rest left in shrinking “people warehouses”). Further, after several wars and countless lives destroyed, it is definitely time to discuss in more detail the motives and the psychology behind Zionism.

The attempt to censor and shut down this debate is backfiring. More and more people are spreading memes that challenge the tribalism that lead to conflicts and war. People can choose to dismiss these things and avoid the dialogue, or they can engage in it. I think it is far more constructive to engage in it than to dismiss it out of hand.

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Jewish schoolteacher arrested on child pornography charges

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FBI agents raid Manhattan apartment of Evan Zauder, where they discover hundreds of images and videos of boys engaged in sex acts.

Haaretz

A New York-area Jewish schoolteacher and summer camp counselor has been arrested on charges of possessing child pornography.

FBI agents on May 1 raided the Manhattan apartment of Evan Zauder, where they discovered on his computer hundreds of images and videos of boys, some as young as 7, engaged in sex acts.

Zauder, 26, is a sixth grade teacher at Yeshivat Noam, a Modern Orthodox school, in Paramus, N.J. He is currently in jail pending a bail hearing on May 4.

Zauder is charged with one count of possessing child pornography. He faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in jail and a maximum fine of $250,000.

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White House: Syria cease-fire plan ‘has not been succeeding’

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thehill.com

Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s cease-fire plan for Syria “hasn’t been succeeding,” White House Spokesman Jay Carney said Thursday during his daily press briefing following reports that Syrian forces had killed four student protesters.

“We continue to hope that the Annan plan succeeds, and we are working to support it in every way possible,” Carney said, reading from a prepared statement. “However it is clear – and we will not deny – that the plan has not been succeeding thus far and that the regime has made no effort to take any of the steps required under the Annan plan, including moving toward the implementation of a full cease-fire. 

“If the regime’s intransigence continues, the international community is going to have to admit defeat and work to address the serious threat to peace and stability being perpetrated by the Assad regime.”

Carney said that would be done through the UN Security Council or other avenues, such as the Friends of Syria group.

The six-point Annan plan calls for a cease-fire, humanitarian aid, the release of political prisoners, the respect of freedom of the press and assembly and a “Syrian-led political process to address the legitimate aspirations and concerns of the Syrian people.” The Syrian government said Thursday it was committed to Annan’s plan.

 ”At the same time, we are waiting for Mr. Annan to take tangible steps towards the armed terrorist groups and take commitments from the states which support and sponsor them to halt violence in Syria,” the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency quoted Minister of Information Adnan Mahmoud as saying.

The comments come after Derek Chollet, the senior director for strategy at the National Security Council, said the plan was “failing” during a Senate hearing last week.

The White House admission creates extra pressure on the administration to take extra measures to quell the bloodshed in Syria, where at least 10,000 people have been killed since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began a year ago. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) is in the region this week meeting with area leaders about possible next steps, including arming the rebels and creating safety zones protected by the international community.

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Interview with Matan Kaminer on J14 and the Israeli left

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I met Matan Kaminer in Tel Aviv in January 2012, and we agreed to do an extended interview about the state of the left in Israeli society after the con­tro­ver­sial J14 social justice protests.

Can you tell us a little about yourself and your back­ground?  How did you get involved in political activity?

I was born to an activist family.  My grand­par­ents were among the founders of the New Left in Israel in the seventies.  After they left the Communist Party of Israel (CPI) they were among the founders of SIAH (New Israeli Left) and then of SHASI (Israeli Socialist Left), which, together with the CPI and the Black Panthers, founded the Demo­c­ra­tic Front for Peace and Equality — as al-Jabha/Hadash.  My parents also took the path from SIAH to SHASI, and my father was involved in Yesh Gvul, a movement of con­sci­en­tious objectors to the occu­pa­tion.  He was impris­oned twice when he refused to fight in the First Lebanon War.

I became active in the Hadash youth group in Tel Aviv when I was fifteen.  This was mostly a reading and dis­cus­sion group — we didn’t actually do very much but it was formative for me intel­lec­tu­ally and polit­i­cally.  Then I was involved in the “Shmin­is­tim” movement of con­sci­en­tious objectors and spent 21 months in prison for refusing to serve in the IDF.  After that I travelled in South America and sub­se­quently became active in sol­i­dar­ity work with migrants and refugees, par­tic­u­larly from Latin America but also in general.  Last year I finished four years at Tel Aviv Uni­ver­sity, where I was also active in the Hadash branch, and I’m also a member of Ir LeKulanu, a municipal political front that also includes Hadash.

Talk a little bit about the origins of the current social inequal­ity in Israel.  Who put in place these programs?  And how are they linked to the occupation?

These are difficult questions, and I’m not sure I know the answers to all of them.  The regime in Israel-Palestine is cap­i­tal­ist and colonial.  It is impos­si­ble to under­stand con­di­tions in Israel proper — that is, ter­ri­to­ri­ally speaking, within the “Green Line,” or in terms of pop­u­la­tion cat­e­gories, among citizens of Israel — without taking the Pales­tini­ans into account.  Very broadly speaking, the past two or three decades have seen the regime move from a closed, pro­tec­tion­ist and devel­op­men­tal­ist model of growth to inte­gra­tion into global neo-liberal struc­tures, relying more and more on the export of security and related tech­nolo­gies.  To this you can add the finan­cial­iza­tion that we have seen in the rest of the world, making for a very pros­per­ous financial-military-high-tech bloc and for well-paid workers in these industries.

On the other hand you have the rest of the pop­u­la­tion, including the “old” service elites, which have seen a decline in living standards and life chances over recent years.  PM Netanyahu recently said that if you “deduct” the Arab and ultra-Orthodox citizens — the Pales­tini­ans in the ter­ri­to­ries were never part of this equation, of course — the economic situation in Israel is quite good.  This is not true, but it’s telling, because I think the regime is worried about the impov­er­ished middle classes making common cause with the “minority” poor.

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The Crisis of Student Debt in America

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By Devon DB
Global Research,

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness; it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity; it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness; it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair; we had everything before us, we had nothing before us; we were all going directly to Heaven, we were all going the other way. ~ Charles Dickens

We are in a time of crisis, a time of austerity, a time the where poor are getting poorer and the rich are getting richer at a faster pace than at any other time in recent US history. We have gone from having a well-functioning economy to a real unemployment rate of 14.5% [1]. During all of this, the situation has greatly affected college students, who are taking on massive debt just to further their education. With student debt at over $1 trillion, an examination is underway of how we have gotten into this scenario and how we can get our way out of it.

The situation began in 1964 when Lyndon B. Johnson established a task force to examine the role of federal government in student aid, headed by John W. Gardener. The taskforce firmly believed that cost shouldn’t be a barrier in attaining a college education and to this end they concerned themselves with how lack of funds contributed to students being unable to attend college. Gardener

 

focused on a study which revealed that one out of six students who took the National Merit Scholarship test in high school did not attend college. Of the students who did not attend college and who had families who could contribute only $300 or less to their education, about 75 percent of the men and 55 percent of the women indicated that they would have attended college if they had had more money available. [2] (emphasis added)

 

Upon seeing this information, Johnson was shocked as he viewed the situation as a loss in human capital. This drove him to sign the the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 1965 into law. The bill included the recommendations put forth by the Gardener taskforce that the federal government should aid student in their journey to attain a higher education by providing loans, remedial classes, and grants to college-aspiring students as well as special programs and projects for low-income students who have an interest in attending college. This allowed for low-income and middle-class students who have an opportunity to go to college.

 

There was an uphill battle, though, as the American Bank Association was against the loan guarantee provision. The ABA was mainly concerned about possible government encroachment in their business, arguing that “the federal government could not replicate the working relationships that locally-owned financial institutions had with state and private non-profit guarantee programs” and “the federal government would end up taking over the industry because there would be little incentive for the state and private non-profit agencies to establish their own programs.” [3] To solve this problem, the Johnson administration met with the ABA and worked to “[assure] the bankers the loans would pay them back handsomely over time because they were investing in young people who would become their best customers in the future,” [4] as well as telling the banks that the government would be the ultimate loan guarantor if there was no one else available. Thus, with the banks placated, the bill could be passed.

 

There were several reauthorizations of the Higher Education Opportunity Act, but one of the most important reauthorizations was in 1972. In the 1972 bill, there were several new programs created, yet one of the most important ones was the Basic Educational Opportunity Grant which sends “a payment directly from the federal government to undergraduate students based on their financial need,” yet this act also “tied institutional aid to the number of students receiving federal student aid at the given institution.” [5] Tying institutional aid in this manner only served to increase costs. According to the Bennett hypothesis, first proposed in the 1980s by Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, colleges absorb federal student aid by increasing tuition costs. (This was proven in a paper done by two economics professors at the University of Oregon. [6]) While these increases in tuition were not seen in the 1970s, they began to be felt substantially during the 1980s, thus causing students to increase their debt levels. However there was another factor involved that led to student debt increase: President Ronald Reagan.

During the presidency of Ronald Reagan, he launched a massive attack on federal student aid. Reagan’s budget included a proposal that would

cut deeply into the two major student assistance programs, the Pell grants and the Guaranteed Student Loans, to reduce sharply or eliminate a series of categorical programs in higher education, and to eliminate a group of social or economic programs which either directly or indirectly affect higher education. With rare exception, every college campus would be affected by the proposed cuts beginning in academic year 1981-82. [7] (emphasis added)

 

In cutting these student assistance programs, Reagan went against the spirit of the 1965 Higher Educational Opportunity Act, in which the main goal was to ensure that a college education was both accessible and affordable. In addition to this, he was effectively targeting low-income and middle class people who needed that assistance in order to afford a college education. Congress attempted to enact amendments to the Higher Education bill that would allow for both programs to continue until 1985 and expanded programs such as Guaranteed Student Loans to middle-class families.

Yet, there were complaints from the Reagan administration, specifically Secretary of Education Terrence Bell, that the expanding such programs “had the potential for eroding the traditional roles of the student and the family in the financing of educational costs” [8] and that the Guaranteed Student Loans program was actually an entitlement program as its costs couldn’t be constricted without Congressional approval. Rather than actually allow students greater access to education, the Reagan administration was able to pass a plan that would gut federal student aid assistance by cutting the amount of aid per Pell Grant from $1,900 to $1,750, limiting Guaranteed Student Loans to remaining need, and eliminating the in-school interest subsidy and the subsidy to lenders on Parent Loans.

This decrease in federal aid only served to disenfranchise millions of potential college students from attaining an education. Student debt also increased. A survey done by the College Scholarship Service and National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators showed that “those students at public institutions who borrow will graduate with an average debt of $6,685, while their counterparts at private colleges and universities will assume $8,950 in debt on average.”

This decrease in aid hit minority students quite hard as in 1987 there was a seven percent decline in college enrollment for Native Americans and eleven percent for blacks. Many minority groups depended on grants and scholarships to go to college, but now their only option was to borrow money or just not go at all. This would have a major ripple effect as “Many studies have shown that one of the most important factors influencing the decision to go to college is parental educational level” and that “If today’s minority high school graduates choose not to participate in further education, out of concern for loan burdens or for other reasons, their children may not be as likely to go to college as the next generation of white and Asian students.” [9] This would only serve to further increase educational- and with it economic- disparities between races.

The situation did not get any better in the next decade as the median student loan debt more than doubled in a 10 year period, increasing from $4,000 in 1990 to about $11,000 in 1999. [10] It was to become even worse with the passing of the Higher Education Amendments of 1998, which stated that student loans could no longer be forgiven under bankruptcy. Thus, if one found themselves in bankruptcy, but had student loans, they would be in debt bondage until the loans were paid. In such a situation, the only possible out is to default on one’s student loans, however, that would not only worsen your credit but your entire financial life can potentially be destroyed as if you default
  • Your entire loan balance will be due in full, immediately.
  • Collection fees can be added to your outstanding balance.
  • Up to 15% of your paychecks can be taken.
  • Your Social Security, disability income, and state and federal tax refunds can be seized.
  • You will lose eligibility for federal aid, including Pell grants.
  • You will lose deferment or forbearance options.
  • Outstanding fees and unpaid interest can be capitalized (added) onto your principal balance. [11]

Thus, by the very circumstances, a situation of ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ is created and students are put into de facto debt slavery.

 

This brings us to our current situation where student debt nationwide is over $1 trillion. Student debt can potentially turn into a major problem by threatening economic growth due to the fact that people are defaulting on their student loans as they cannot find jobs. A recent article came out from the Associated Press which stated that 53% of college graduates are either unemployed or underemployed and that when “underemployment [is taken] into consideration, the job prospects for bachelor’s degree holders fell last year to the lowest level in more than a decade.” [12] This is an even further economic threat when one realizes that the current level of student is unsustainable and that there will be major ripple effects on the economy when this house of cards comes crashing down.
In order to deal with the situation, there are some in Washington who favor rewriting bankruptcy laws as to allow for a return for student debt to be cleared in bankruptcy, however, this would only apply to private student loans, thus the student would still be on the hook for any federal loans owed. Yet, allowing federal loans to be absolved in bankruptcy is quite a thorny issue as taxpayers would have to pick up the tab. Once again, just as in 1965, the American Bankers Association is against such a proposal “saying it would tempt students to rack up big debt that they won’t repay [and that] ‘The bankruptcy system would be opened to abuse.’” [13] It will be interesting to see whether or not the government can once again placate the banks.
The only way to get out of this mess is forgiving loans. There is already some support in Congress as bill H.R. 4170 also known as The Student Loan Forgiveness Act is currently being proposed. The bill would fully forgive the loans of those who have been making payment for the past decade or will be able to do so in the coming years. It also “caps interest rates on federal student loans at 3.4 percent and enables existing borrowers to break free from crushing fees by converting many private loans into federal loans.” Such a bill would free students from debt slavery and “would give Americans greater purchasing power, helping to jumpstart our economy and create jobs.” [14]

This is what needs to be done in order to aid getting our economy back on track. If the government can spend over $1 trillion on wars and billions to bailout corrupt banks, hopefully they can spare a couple billion to bailout America’s college graduates.

The alternative is to have the student debt bubble explode in our faces and the economy slump into even more dire straits and banks tighten up the flow of credit.

America now has a choice before it concerning its young people: they can either set them free, aiding in economic regrowth or risk shattering the economic recovery and mantain their children in the shackles of debt slavery.

Notes

 

1: Portal Seven, Unemployment Rate U-6http://portalseven.com/employment/unemployment_rate_u6.jsp
2 TG Research and Analytical Services, Higher Education Opportunity Act, http://www.tgslc.org/pdf/hea_history.pdf(November 2005)
3: Ibid
4: Ibid
5: Thomas R. Wolanin, “Federal Policy Making in Higher Education,” American Association of University Professors 61:4 (1975), 309
6:  Larry D. Singell, Jr., Joe A. Stone, “For Whom the Pell Tolls: The Response of University Tuition to Federal Grants-in-Aid,”University of Oregon, September 2005 (
http://web.archive.org/web/20081011160038/http://darkwing.uoregon.edu/~lsingell/Pell_Bennett.pdf )
7: Alfred D. Sumberg, “The Reagan Budget: Attacks on Student Assistance,” American Association of University Professors67:2 (1981), 102
8: Sumberg, 103
9: Kathryn Mohrman, “Unintended Consequences of Federal Aid Student Policies,” The Brookings Review 5:4 (1987) 24, 26
10: Department of Education, Student Loans Overview: Fiscal Year 2012 Budget Request
http://www2.ed.gov/about/overview/budget/budget12/justifications/s-loansoverview.pdf, pg 19
11: American Student Assistance, Default Consequences
http://www.asa.org/in-default/consequences/default.aspx
12: Hope Yen, “Half of recent college grads underemployed or jobless, analysis says,” Associated Press, April 23, 2012 (
http://www.cleveland.com/business/index.ssf/2012/04/half_of_recent_college_grads_u.html )
13: Josh Mitchell, “Trying to Shed Student Debt,” Wall Street Journal, April 27, 2012 (
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303978104577364120264435092.html?mod=WSJ_WSJ_US_News_5 )
14: Hansen Clarke, “Trillion Dollar Crisis: The Case for Student Loan Forgiveness,” Huffington Post, April, 25, 2012 (
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rep-hansen-clarke/student-loan-forgiveness_b_1454241.html )

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Syria: War Crimes in Idlib During Peace Negotiations

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Executions, Destruction of Property, and Arbitrary Detentions
  • A man is overcome with grief in front of a destroyed mosque in Taftanaz where local residents gathered those killed after government forces attacked the town on April 3 and 4. According to local activists, at least 65 people were killed during the two-day attack.
    © 2012 Robert King/Polaris
While diplomats argued over details of Annan’s peace plan, Syrian tanks and helicopters attacked one town in Idlib after another. Everywhere we went, we saw burnt and destroyed houses, shops, and cars, and heard from people whose relatives were killed. It was as if the Syrian government forces used every minute before the ceasefire to cause harm.
Anna Neistat, associate director for program and emergencies

(New York) – Syrian government forces killed at least 95 civilians and burned or destroyed hundreds of houses during a two-week offensive in northern Idlib governorate shortly before the ceasefire, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The attacks happened in late March and early April, as United Nations special envoy Kofi Annan was negotiating with the Syrian government to end the fighting.

The 38-page report,‘They Burned My Heart’: War Crimes in Northern Idlib during Peace Plan Negotiations,” documents dozens of extrajudicial executions, killings of civilians, and destruction of civilian property that qualify as war crimes, as well as arbitrary detention and torture. The report is based on a field investigation conducted by Human Rights Watch in the towns of Taftanaz, Saraqeb, Sarmeen, Kelly, and Hazano in Idlib governorate in late April.

“While diplomats argued over details of Annan’s peace plan, Syrian tanks and helicopters attacked one town in Idlib after another,” said Anna Neistat, associate director for program and emergencies at Human Rights Watch. “Everywhere we went, we saw burnt and destroyed houses, shops, and cars, and heard from people whose relatives were killed. It was as if the Syrian government forces used every minute before the ceasefire to cause harm.”

Human Rights Watch documented large-scale military operations that government forces conducted between March 22 and April 6, 2012, in opposition strongholds in Idlib governorate, causing the death of at least 95 civilians. In each attack, government security forces used numerous tanks and helicopters, and then moved into the towns and stayed from one to three days before proceeding to the next town. Graffiti left by the soldiers in all of the affected towns indicate that the military operation was led by the 76th Armored Brigade.

In nine separate incidents documented by Human Rights Watch, government forces executed 35 civilians in their custody. The majority of executions took place during the attack on Taftanaz, a town of about 15,000 inhabitants northeast of Idlib city on April 3 and 4.

A survivor of the security forces’ execution of 19 members of the Ghazal family in Taftanaz described to Human Rights Watch finding the bodies of his relatives:

We first found five bodies in a little shop next to the house. They were almost completely burnt. We could only identify them by a few pieces of clothes that were left. Then we entered the house and in one of the rooms found nine bodies on the floor, next to the wall. There was a lot of blood on the floor. On the wall, there was a row of bullet marks. The nine men had bullet wounds in their backs, and some in their heads. Their hands were not tied, but still folded behind.

Human Rights Watch researchers were able to observe the bullet marks on the wall that formed a row about 50-60 cm above the floor. Two of those executed were under 18 years old.

In several other cases documented by Human Rights Watch, government forces opened fire and killed or injured civilians trying to flee the attacks. The circumstances of these cases indicate that government forces failed to distinguish between civilians and combatants and to take necessary precautionary measures to protect civilians. Government forces did not provide any warning to the civilian population about the attacks. For example, 76-year-old Ali Ma’assos and his 66-year-old wife, Badrah, were killed by machine-gun fire shortly after the army launched its attack on Taftanaz in the morning on April 3 as they tried to flee the town in a pick-up truck with more than 15 friends and family members.

Upon entering the towns, government forces and shabeeha (pro-government militias) also burned and destroyed a large number of houses, stores, cars, tractors, and other property. Local activists have recorded the partial or complete burning and destruction of hundreds of houses and stores. In Sarmeen, for example, local activists have recorded the burning of 437 rooms and 16 stores, and the complete destruction of 22 houses. In Taftanaz, activists said that about 500 houses were partially or completely burned and that 150 houses had been partially or completely destroyed by tank fire or other explosions. Human Rights Watch examined many of the burned or destroyed houses in the affected towns.

In most cases, the burning and destruction appeared to be deliberate. The majority of houses that were burned had no external damage, excluding the possibility that shelling ignited the fire. In addition, many of the ruined houses were completely destroyed, in contrast to those which appeared to have been hit by tank shells, where the damage was only partial.

During the military operations, the security forces also arbitrarily detained dozens of people, holding them without any legal basis. About two-thirds of the detainees remain in detention to date, despite promises by President Bashar al-Assad’s government to release political detainees. In most cases, the fate and whereabouts of the detainees remains unknown, raising fears that they had been subjected to enforced disappearances. Those who have been released, many of them elderly or disabled, told Human Rights Watch that during their detention in various branches of the mukhabarat (intelligence agencies) in Idlib city they had been subjected to torture and ill-treatment.

Opposition fighters were present in all of the towns prior to the attacks and in some cases tried to prevent the army from entering the towns. In most cases, according to local residents, opposition fighters withdrew quickly when they realized that they were significantly outnumbered and had no means to resist tanks and artillery. In other towns, opposition fighters left without putting up any resistance; residents said this was in order to avoid endangering the civilian population.

The fighting in Idlib appeared to reach the level of an armed conflict under international law, given the intensity of the fighting and the level of organization on both sides, including the armed opposition, who ordered and conducted retreats. This would mean that international humanitarian law (the law of armed conflict) would apply in addition to human rights law. Serious violations of international humanitarian law are classified as war crimes.

Human Rights Watch has previously documented and condemned serious abuses by opposition fighters in Syria, including abuses in Taftanaz. These abuses should be investigated and those responsible brought to justice. These abuses by no means justify, however, the violations committed by the government forces, including summary executions of villagers and the large-scale destruction of villages.

Human Rights Watch called on the United Nations Security Council to ensure that the UN supervisory mission deployed to Syria includes a properly staffed and equipped human rights section that is able safely and independently to interview victims of human rights abuses such as those documented in this report, while protecting them from retaliation. Human Rights Watch also called on the UN Security Council to ensure accountability for these crimes by referring the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court, and for the ongoing UN Commission of Inquiry to support this.

“The United Nations – through the Commission of Inquiry and the Security Council – should make sure that the crimes committed by Syrian security forces do not go unpunished,” said Neistat. “The peace plan efforts will be seriously undermined if abuses continue behind the observers’ backs.”
Eyewitness Accounts From “‘They Burned My Heart’: War Crimes in Northern Idlib during Peace Plan Negotiations”

The soldiers had handcuffed him behind his back. They didn’t hit him in front of me, but I saw that his eye was bruised. I tried to be quiet and nice to the soldiers so that they would release him.

They spent about 15 minutes in the house, asking him about weapons and searching everywhere. I think they were looking for money. I didn’t say good-bye so as to not make him sad. He didn’t say anything either. When they left, the soldiers said that I should forget him.

–Mother of Mohammad Saleh Shamrukh, chant-leader from Saraqeb, who was summarily executed by the Syrian security forces on March 25, 2012

The soldiers placed the four of us facing a wall. They first asked Awad where his armed sons were. When Awad said that he was an old man and that he didn’t have any armed sons, they just shot him three times from a Kalashnikov. They then said to Ahmed that apparently 25 years in prison had not been enough for him. When he didn’t say anything, they shot him. They then shot Iyad without any questions and he fell on my shoulder. I realized that it was my turn. I said there is no God but Allah and Muhammed is his prophet and then I don’t remember anything else.

–Mohammed Aiman Ezz, 43-year-old man shot three times in the back of the head and neck by government forces in an attempted execution of four men in Taftanaz on April 4. He was the only survivor

I knew in my heart it was my boys [my son and my brother], that they were killed. I ran out, and about 50 meters from the house there were nine bodies, next to the wall. There were still snipers on the roofs, and we had to move very slowly, using flashlights. I pointed my flashlight at the first body, then the second – it wasn’t Uday or Saed. Then I asked the neighbors to help, and we found them both. Saed still had his hands tied behind. People later told me that Uday and Saed were executed there, and the other seven were FSA fighters brought from other places. Uday had a bullet wound in the neck and the back of his head; Saed in his chest and neck.

–“Heba” (not her real name), mother of 15-year-old Uday Mohammed al-Omar and 21-year-old Saeed Mustafa Barish, both executed by the Syrian security forces in Saraqeb on March 26, 2012

The tank was on the main road, just 10 meters away from the house. Suddenly, they fired four shells, one after the other, into the house. I was in the house next door, with my mother and six children. We were all thrown into the air by the blast, and for 15 minutes I couldn’t see or hear anything. Then we went into the room that was hit by the shells. One of the walls had a huge hole, some 1.5 meters in diameter, and the opposite wall was completely destroyed. We found Ezzat in the rubble; we could only see his fingers and part of his shoe. It is a miracle that his wife and child were not hurt. They were in the same house, but went to the kitchen when the shells hit. We took Ezzat out, but couldn’t save him. His chest was crushed, and blood was coming out of his mouth and ears.

–“Rashida” (not her real name), a relative of 50-year-old Ezzat Ali Sheikh Dib who died when the army shelled his house in Saraqeb on March 27, 2012

They put a Kalashnikov [assault rifle] to my head and threatened to kill us all if my husband did not come home. The children started crying. Then an officer told a soldier to get petrol and told the children that he would burn them like he would burn their father because he is a terrorist. When the soldier came back with some sort of liquid – it didn’t seem to be petrol – they poured it out in three of the rooms while we were staying in the living room. We wanted to get out of the house, but the soldiers prevented us. My young daughters were crying and begging them to let us go. We were all terrified. Finally, they allowed us to leave the house, but I became even more afraid when I saw all the soldiers and tanks in the street.

–“Salma” (not her real name), whose house in Taftanaz was burnt by the soldiers on April 4, along with the houses of her five brothers-in-law

They put me in the car, handcuffed, and kept there all day, until seven in the evening. I told them, ‘I am an old man, let me go to the bathroom,’ but they just beat me on the face. Then they brought me to State Security in Idlib, and put me in a 30-square-meter cell with about 100 other detainees. I had to sleep squatting on the floor. There was just one toilet for all of us. They took me to an interrogation four times, each time asking why some of my family members joined the FSA. I didn’t deny it, but said there was nothing I could do to control what my relatives do. They slapped me on the face a lot.

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Osama bin Laden Documents Released Online

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AP/The Huffington Post

Osama Bin Laden

On Wednesday, West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) released a “treasure trove” of documents recovered from Osama bin Laden’s compound in the raid that killed that former al Qaeda leader last year.

The accompanying report,Letters from Abbottabad: Bin Ladin Sidelined? studies 17 declassified documents totaling 175 pages in Arabic and 197 pages in English, including letters and electronic correspondences dating from between September 2006 and April 2011. According to the CTC, the letters authored by al Qaeda leadership including Osama bin Laden largely focus on Muslims “suffering at the hands of his jihadi ‘brothers.'”

One letter presumed to have been forwarded to bin Laden shows that the group Jaysh al-Islam’s sought financial assistance to “support jihad,” as well as legal advice. In a separate letter purportedly authored by bin Laden, the terrorist mastermind responds to the Arab Spring.

U.S. Homeland Security Advisor John Brennan announced on Monday that the bin Laden documents would be published online. In the report, the CTC describes how the documents were retrieved the night bin Laden was killed. “The professionals conducting this operation were trained to survey the site and collect any electronic media, papers, or pocket litter that might inform future operations,” the report notes.

According to CNN, more than 6,000 documents were recovered from the computers, harddrives, and over 100 storage devices seized in the raid.

Osama bin Laden was killed last year in a U.S. Navy SEALS raid on his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

Read the full report from the Associated Press below:

By Kimberly Dozier, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — In letters from his last hideout, Osama bin Laden fretted about dysfunction in his terrorist network and crumbling trust from Muslims he wished to incite against their government and the West.

A selection of documents seized in last year’s raid on bin Laden’s Pakistan house was posted online Thursday by the U.S. Army’s Combating Terrorism Center. The documents show dark days for al-Qaida and its hunkered-down leader after years of attacks by the United States and what bin Laden saw as bumbling within his own organization and its terrorist allies.

“I plan to release a statement that we are starting a new phase to correct (the mistakes) we made,” bin Laden wrote in 2010. “In doing so, we shall reclaim, God willing, the trust of a large segment of those who lost their trust in the jihadis.”

Until the end, bin Laden remained focused on attacking Americans and coming up with plots, however improbable, to kill U.S. leaders. He wished especially to target airplanes carrying Gen. David Petraeus and even President Barack Obama, reasoning that an assassination would elevate an “utterly unprepared” Vice President Joe Biden into the presidency and plunge the U.S. into crisis.

But a U.S. analysts’ report released along with bin Laden’s correspondence describes him as upset over the inability of spinoff terrorist groups to win public support for their cause, their unsuccessful media campaigns and poorly planned plots that, in bin Laden’s view, killed too many innocent Muslims.

Bin Laden adviser Adam Gadahn urged him to disassociate their organization from the acts of al-Qaida’s spinoff operation in Iraq, known as AQI, and bin Laden told other terrorist groups not to repeat AQI’s mistakes.

The correspondence includes letters by then-second-in-command Abu Yahya al-Libi, taking Pakistani offshoot Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan to task over its indiscriminate attacks on Muslims. The al-Qaida leadership “threatened to take public measures unless we see from you serious and immediate practical and clear steps towards reforming (your ways) and dissociating yourself from these vile mistakes that violate Islamic Law,” al-Libi wrote.

And bin Laden warned the leader of Yemeni AQAP, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, against attempting a takeover of Yemen to establish an Islamic state, instead saying he should “refocus his efforts on attacking the United States.”

Bin Laden also seemed uninterested in recognizing Somali-based al-Shabab when the group pledged loyalty to him because he thought its leaders were poor governors of the areas they controlled and were too strict with their administration of Islamic penalties, like cutting off the hands of thieves.

The U.S. said the letters reflect al-Qaida’s relationship with Iran – a point of deep interest to the U.S. government – as “not one of alliance, but of indirect and unpleasant negotiations” over some al-Qaida terrorists and their families who were imprisoned in Iran.

Nothing in the papers that were released points directly to al-Qaida sympathizers in Pakistan’s government, although presumably such references would have remained classified. Bin Laden described “trusted Pakistani brothers” but didn’t identify any Pakistani government or military officials who might have been aware or complicit in his hiding in Abbottabad.

It wasn’t immediately clear how many of bin Laden’s documents the U.S. was still keeping secret. In a note published with the 175 pages in Arabic that were released Thursday, along with English translations, retired Gen. John Abizaid said they probably represent only a small fraction of materials taken from the compound in the U.S. raid that tracked down and killed bin Laden in May 2011. The U.S. said the documents span September 2006 to April 2011.

Bin Laden was proud of the security measures that kept his family safe for many years, the report said. It said bin Laden boasted that his family “adhered to such strict measures, precluding his children from playing outdoors without the supervision of an adult who could keep their voices down.”

The report said the Special Forces troops in the bin Laden raid were trained to search the home afterward for thumb drives, printed documents and what it described as “pocket litter” that might produce leads to other terrorists. “The end of the raid in Abbottabad was the beginning of a massive analytical effort,” it said.

It said the personal files showed that, during one of the most significant manhunts in history, bin Laden was out of touch with the day-to-day operations of various terrorist groups inspired by al-Qaida. He was “not in sync on the operational level with its so-called affiliates,” researchers wrote. “Bin Laden enjoyed little control over either groups affiliated with al Qaida in name or so-called fellow travelers.”

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Newt Gingrich Out: Candidate Ending 2012 Presidential Campaign (VIDEO)

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Newt Gingrich Drops Out

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich officially ended his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination on Wednesday.

In delivering a statement on his departure from the race, Gingrich characterized his time on the trail as “a truly wild ride.” He said that he and his wife Callista had “an amazing year.”

Addressing the future of presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s campaign, Gingrich said that he’s been asked whether the former Massachusetts governor is “conservative enough.” He said the contest “isn’t a choice between Mitt Romney and Ronald Reagan.” Rather, he said in taking a shot at President Barack Obama, it’s “a choice between Romney and “the most radical, leftist president in American history.”

Gingrich also made critical remarks about the way things are done in the nation’s capital, calling the Senate a “stunningly dysfunctional institution.”

Despite hitting bumps in the road, it wasn’t too long ago that Gingrich vowed to continue his campaign all the way to the Republican convention in Tampa in August. On Tuesday, he released a web video addressing his decision to abandon his presidential operation.

The Associated Press reports that Gingrich is leaving the primary contest with his campaign carrying at least $4.5 million in debt.

“I’m suspending the campaign,” Gingrich said on Wednesday. “But suspending the campaign does not mean suspending citizenship.”

As the race for the White House goes on, Romney said in a statement, “Newt Gingrich has brought creativity and intellectual vitality to American political life.”

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Egypt Protests: 11 Killed In Clashes Outside Defense Ministry In Cairo

NOVANEWS

By HAMZA HENDAWI

CAIRO — Egypt’s worst violence in months escalated the confrontation between political forces and the ruling military ahead of a landmark presidential election, as suspected army supporters attacked mainly Islamist protesters outside the Defense Ministry Wednesday, sparking clashes that left at least 11 people dead.

Political parties swiftly blamed the ruling generals for the bloodshed and vowed the election must go ahead as planned to ensure the military’s removal from power.

Egypt has been plagued by sporadic bouts of deadly violence since the ouster of longtime authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak last year, but Wednesday’s killings took on added significance, coming just three weeks ahead of the presidential election. The killings also provided opponents of the military with more evidence the generals who took over from Mubarak are badly bungling the shift to democratic rule and acting much like their former mentor.

“We blame the military council for the bloodshed,” Islamist lawmaker Osama Yassin of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party told state television.

Around 1,000 protesters have been camped outside the Defense Ministry for days demanding an end to military rule. Most are supporters of disqualified presidential candidate Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, an ultraconservative Islamist barred from running because his late mother held dual Egyptian-U.S. citizenship, making him ineligible under election laws.

But the violence, which broke out at dawn, prompted other factions to join in. Throughout the day, thousands marched to the site of the clashes in the Cairo district of Abbasiyah, protesting into the evening surrounded by armored vehicles and lines of riot police.

The fundamentalist Brotherhood, Egypt’s strongest movement, quickly moved to try to reap political gains from what has turned into a growing confrontation between it and the military. In a statement, it held the military responsible and warned that Egyptians would show “no mercy” if the generals did not meet what it called the revolution’s demands.

The Brotherhood urged a new mass protest on Friday in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to ensure the military hands over power by July 1 as promised.

The Brotherhood has been frustrated that its domination of parliament – where it holds nearly half the seats – has not translated into political power because the military has kept executive rule in its own hands.

Their increasingly bitter quarrel has centered on the military-backed government led by Prime Minister Kamal el-Ganzouri. The Brotherhood has demanded that the military dismiss the government and allow the Islamist majority in parliament to form a new one. The generals have so far ignored the calls, and in response Parliament Speaker Saad el-Katatni, a Brotherhood leader, suspended the chamber’s sessions for a week on Sunday in protest.

The Brotherhood was also dealt a severe blow when a court last month suspended a 100-member panel formed by parliament to draft a new constitution. The panel was dominated by the Brotherhood and other Islamists, and the generals are pushing lawmakers to come up with an acceptable method of selection for a new panel.

The Brotherhood’s party leader, Mohammed Morsi, is one of three front-runners in the presidential race, along with former foreign minister Amr Moussa and a moderate Islamist, Abdel-Moneim Abolfotoh. The first round of voting is set for May 23-24.

But many fear the military will try to retain a say in politics even after handing over power to the election winner.

Seeking to allay fears the military might push back the handover and cling to power, Chief of Staff Gen. Sami Anan said the military was ready to step down if the election produces an outright winner – a highly unlikely scenario. None of the 13 candidates is expected to secure at least 50 percent of the vote, meaning a runoff between the top two contenders is likely on June 16-17.

To protest Wednesday’s violence, several presidential candidates temporarily suspended their campaigns. Several key political parties, including the Brotherhood, also boycotted a meeting with the generals.

“It is not possible for us to talk now, while blood is being shed just meters away,” said Essam el-Erian, a senior figure in the Brotherhood’s political party.

Nevertheless, the ruling military council met with the other political factions to discuss efforts to create a new constitutional panel.

The violence also led to the cancellation of the first presidential debate, between Moussa and Abolfotoh, which had been scheduled for nationwide broadcast Thursday night.

In many ways, Wednesday’s clashes were a repeat of previous violence over the 14 months since Mubarak’s ouster – a peaceful, anti-military demonstration set upon by armed men as police or army troops looked on without intervening.

On Wednesday, the army and police did not move for hours to separate the two sides.

Of the 11 killed, nine died of gunshots to the head and two suffered stabbing wounds, according to medical officials and police reports. The gunshots to the head suggested sniper fire.

Theories of who is behind the attacks of the past year have varied, with many activists blaming plainclothes police, army troops or petty criminals working for the police. Others spoke of hard-core Mubarak loyalists or thugs hired by Mubarak-era businessmen who have been hurt by the overthrow of the regime.

Abbasiyah residents and the protesters traded accusations of tit-for-tat attacks and intimidation.

“Salafis attacked us and our houses. They sealed off our streets, checking our IDs and damaging our shops and pharmacies. We were afraid. I am forced to arm myself,” said one resident, driver Essam Bakheit. “They say we are thugs but I swear we are not. I was born here. They are liars.”

Mohammed Fathi, a bearded Abu Ismail supporter, said the protesters did not instigate the violence. “Every night since we held our first day of protest, thugs climb the bridge above us and shower us with bombs and gunshots,” he said.

The clashes broke out at dawn when assailants set upon several hundred protesters, security officials and witnesses said. The clashes resumed later in the morning, but then stopped again when lines of black-clad riot police and army troops backed by armored vehicles finally moved in to separate the two sides at noon.

“The army’s intervention has come hours too late,” Amnesty International spokesman Philip Luther said in a statement. “There appears to be no will within Egypt’s ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to prevent these tragic events.”

Sami Mahmoud, a 42-year-old Abbasiyah resident, said he was standing guard outside his building early Wednesday when a group of armed men roamed the streets shooting in the air and at balconies.

“Nobody protected us. The military and police didn’t intervene. They let us down,” he said.

___

AP correspondents Maggie Michael and Sarah El Deeb contributed to this report.

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Obama in Afghanistan Declares ‘Light Of New Day’ In Speech To America

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Obama Afghanistan

Military personnel watch on a screen as President Barack Obama makes a live address at Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan, Wednesday, May 2, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

WASHINGTON — In a dramatic address to Americans broadcast from a military hangar outside Kabul, Afghanistan, President Barack Obama on Tuesday trumpeted the near-end of U.S. military operations in the country, 10 years after the U.S. invasion and one year to the day after he ordered the assassination of Osama bin Laden.

Speaking against the backdrop of two armored military vehicles, one draped with an American flag, Obama said that he just signed “an historic agreement” with Afghan leader Hamid Karzai outlining a new, post-war relationship between the two countries.

But before outlining the agreement, Obama reminded Americans why U.S. troops were there in the first place: Osama bin Laden, a topic that the president and vice president haven’t been shy about highlighting on the campaign trail.

“It was here, in Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden established a safe haven for his terrorist organization. It was here, in Afghanistan, where al Qaeda brought new recruits, trained them, and plotted acts of terror. It was here, from within these borders, that al Qaeda launched the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 innocent men, women and children,” the president said.

Obama ran through the successes of the U.S. military since the 9/11 attacks and tied them directly to his goal of toppling al Qaeda.

“We broke the Taliban’s momentum. We’ve built strong Afghan security forces. We devastated al Qaeda’s leadership, taking out over 20 of their top 30 leaders. And one year ago, from a base here in Afghanistan, our troops launched the operation that killed Osama bin Laden. The goal that I set — to defeat al Qaeda, and deny it a chance to rebuild — is within reach,” Obama said. “Here, in the pre-dawn darkness of Afghanistan, we can see the light of a new day on the horizon.”

As for withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan, Obama noted that nearly half of the Afghan people already live in places where Afghan forces are moving into the lead. While international troops will continue to assist the Afghan military, the U.S. is shifting into a support role and bringing its troops home. Some 23,000 U.S. troops will leave by the end of the summer, followed by reductions at “a steady pace” until 2014, when all U.S. troops will be removed, the president said.

As part of the 10-year strategic partnership agreement struck with Karzai earlier Tuesday, Obama said his administration has been “in direct discussions with the Taliban” to tell them they can be part of the transition in Afghanistan if they break with al Qaeda and renounce violence.

“Many members of the Taliban, from foot soldiers to leaders, have indicated an interest in reconciliation. A path to peace is now set before them,” Obama said. “Those who refuse to walk it will face strong Afghan security forces backed by the United States and our allies.”

In the meantime, some U.S. troops will stay in Afghanistan through 2014 to help the country stabilize. “Otherwise, our gains could be lost, and al Qaeda could establish itself once more. And as commander-in-chief, I refuse to let that happen,” Obama said.

The president’s remarks came hours after he arrived in Afghanistan on a surprise trip. In a conference call earlier Tuesday, senior administration officials maintained that the goal of the trip was to sign the agreement with Karzai. But the visit also gave Obama the chance to meet with U.S. troops and, not coincidentally, to do so on the anniversary of bin Laden’s death.

The officials outlined the five components of the new U.S.-Afghan agreement: promoting shared Democratic values; advancing long-term security; reinforcing regional security; social and economic development; and strengthening Afghan governance. The agreement hasn’t been made public, but it will be “soon,” according to the officials who spoke on background. The agreement also doesn’t commit to specific funding or troop levels beyond 2014, when the U.S. will cease combat operations in Afghanistan.

“Those are the decisions that will be made in consultation with the U.S. Congress,” said an official.

The U.S.-Afghan agreement has been in the works for 20 months. Obama and Karzai had a goal of finishing it before an international summit later this month in Chicago, said the official, and they agreed it would be signed “on Afghan soil” to show their commitment to building a future together.

A second U.S. official said it was “always the president’s intention” to spend the anniversary of the assassination of bin Laden with U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

“It was an extraordinarily capable group of U.S. service members who carried out that operation,” said this official. “What better place to spend time with the troops than with those here in Afghanistan who are in harm’s way?”

Before delivering his address to the nation, Obama spoke to U.S. troops stationed at Bagram Air Base.

“We did not choose this war. This war came to us on 9/11. And there are a whole bunch of folks here, I’ll bet, who signed up after 9/11,” the president said to a group of about 3,200 troops, according to a White House transcript.

The crowd responded, “Hooah!”

“Because of the sacrifices now of a decade, and a new Greatest Generation, not only were we able to blunt the Taliban momentum, not only were we able to drive al Qaeda out of Afghanistan, but slowly and systematically we have been able to decimate the ranks of al Qaeda, and a year ago we were able to finally bring Osama bin Laden to justice,” Obama said, drawing applause and another “Hooah!” from the crowd.

Back in Washington, Obama’s trip drew mixed responses from Senate Republicans.

“I am pleased that the President has traveled to Afghanistan,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said in a statement.

McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, called the trip “a significant opportunity” for Obama to hear directly from military commanders on the ground about progress in defeating al Qaeda. He also highlighted the importance of Obama signing the strategic partnership agreement.

“I am hopeful that it will send a signal to friends and enemies in the region that the United States is committed to a secure and free Afghanistan,” McCain said.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) tweeted Tuesday night that a secure Afghanistan “is vital to natl security & today’s agreement signals that US will remain key partner of Afghan people.”

But Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), also a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, accused the president of making the trip for political purposes.

“Clearly this trip is campaign-related,” Inhofe said in a statement. “We’ve seen recently that President Obama has visited college campuses in an attempt to win back the support of that age group since he has lost it over the last three years. Similarly, this trip to Afghanistan is an attempt to shore up his national security credentials, because he has spent the past three years gutting our military.”

UPDATE: 10 p.m. — Mitt Romney said in a statement released by his presidential campaign:

I am pleased that President Obama has returned to Afghanistan. Our troops and the American people deserve to hear from our president about what is at stake in this war. Success in Afghanistan is vital to our nation’s security. It would be a tragedy for Afghanistan and a strategic setback for America if the Taliban returned to power and once again created a sanctuary for terrorists. We tolerated such a sanctuary until we lost thousands on September 11, 2001. Many brave Americans have sacrificed everything so that we could win this fight for a more secure future. Let us honor the memory of the fallen, not only by keeping them in our daily thoughts but also by staying true to their commitment. We are united as one nation in our gratitude to our country’s heroes.

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U.S. commits to support Afghanistan’s social and economic development, security, institutions and regional cooperation.

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