The New York Timesleads with a look at the preparations under way in Afghanistan to arm local militias to help in the fight against the Taliban. The first batch of these armed groups would be deployed early next year in one province and could soon expand to other areas if it's successful. Commanders are, of course, trying to export a tactic that has been successful in Iraq but many Afghans and Western officials are wary of the idea and say it could create more problems than it solves. The Washington Postleads with new figures that show how the housing market has been weakening at a faster pace than analysts were expecting. There's now a widespread fear among economists "that the housing downturn has entered a new phase, fired by a recession it helped create," notes the WP.
The Los Angeles Timesand the Wall Street Journal's world-wide newsbox lead with the report released by President-elect Barack Obama's transition team that concluded no one acting on Obama's behalf was involved in any talks with Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich about possible deals in exchange for appointing someone to fill the state's open Senate seat. Federal prosecutors interviewed Obama, his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, and close adviser Valerie Jarrett last week. USA Todayleads with the bad weather that has hit much of the United States and will complicate travel plans for those who are trying to drive or fly somewhere for Christmas. Today "is going to be an absolute nightmare, both in the air and on the ground," a meteorologist tells the paper. The sliver of good news for travelers is that the weather should improve this weekend so the return trip promises to be less painful.
The fact that American commanders want to create an Afghan version of Iraq's Awakening Councils was already well-known. And yesterday's WSJ reported on some of the details about how the effort is getting started. But while the WSJ said the United States won't arm the new militias, the NYT says they will be given weapons and communication gear as well as a brief training. There are already hints that the program will be much more difficult to implement in Afghanistan than it was in Iraq. While U.S. officials pretty much relied on tribal leaders to select Sunni gunmen for the Awakening that's not as easy to do in Afghanistan, where "30 years of war has left the tribes scattered and attenuated," reports the NYT. Instead, officials will rely on a group of local leaders to choose the militiamen. But now that the Taliban has a permanent presence in much of the country many fear the militias could make the situation worse by starting up dormant tribal feuds and eventually turning on their government. "There will be fighting between Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns," said a member of the Afghan Parliament. "A civil war will start very soon."
Despite the cheaper real estate prices, buyers have mostly remained in the sidelines. Sales of existing homes fell 8.6 percent in November, down 10.6 percent from the same period last year. The median price of a home fell 13 percent in November and reached its lowest point since February 2004. This new data erased all hope that the market was due for a turnaround in the near future. "It almost looked like we were near a bottom for a time, but it hasn't," one economist said. "Instead we have taken another leg down."
The report released yesterday revealed that Emanuel spoke "one or two" times with Blagojevich and "about four" times with the governor's chief of staff about the vacant Senate seat, but was never involved in any quid pro quo discussions. The report also suggests Blagojevich made a concerted effort to penetrate Obama's inner circle. A deputy Illinois governor contacted one of Obama's best friends a few days after the election to talk about the seat. In addition, the head of the Service Employees International Union in Illinois talked to Jarrett about the Senate seat and mentioned Blagojevich's interest in being named Health and Human Services secretary. But Jarrett apparently didn't interpret the conversation to mean that Blagojevich was looking for a deal. While the report appears to clear anyone in Obama's team of having inappropriate conversations with the governor, the LAT points out that since the report didn't include transcripts of the calls, "questions may linger." Indeed, the Republican National Committee is calling on Obama to release internal documents and e-mails that can corroborate the findings.
The WP fronts a look at what it calls "one of the first internal struggles" for Obama's team as some are pushing for the stimulus package to focus on creating "green-collar" jobs rather than traditional infrastructure spending. Opponents of the move say Obama's team is trying to use the financial crisis as an excuse to advance the president-elect's agenda in a way that won't provide an immediate boost to the economy. "If we're going to call it a stimulus package, it has to be stimulating and has to be stimulating now," said Rep. Baron Hill, the incoming co-chairman of the Blue Dog Coalition, a caucus of fiscally conservative Democrats. Labor unions stand to win big from the infrastructure project, but leaders have so far refrained from criticizing those who want a stronger emphasis on "green" projects. "It shouldn't be one or the other," the chairman of a union group tells the WP.
As Obama continues his vacation in Hawaii, Vice President-elect Joe Biden met with Obama's economic team yesterday and seemed intent on reassuring Americans that the economic stimulus package would not be wasted on pork-barrel projects. Biden emphasized that no earmarks would be allowed in the spending package. "I know it's Christmas," Biden said. "But President-elect Obama and I are absolutely determined that this economic recovery package will not become a Christmas tree."
USAT fronts a look at how businesses will play a big part in Obama's inauguration celebrations. Even though the president-elect vowed not to take any money from corporations or federal lobbyists to underwrite the inauguration, businesses are rushing to pay for parties that will take place around Inauguration Day. Government watchdog groups say these parties are an ideal way for special interests to gain favor with politicians. Several members of Congress will also be guests of honor at many of these parties, "including some paid by industries they regulate."
In case you didn't have enough to worry about, the LAT reports that some experts are warning that fish from China may be contaminated with dangerous levels of melamine, an industrial chemical used to artificially boost protein readings. Earlier this year, infant formula spiked with melamine killed six people in China. Some U.S. importers are voluntarily testing for melamine, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn't require it even though its own scientists have found high concentrations of the chemical in seafood from China. Many say the FDA should make melamine testing a requirement for seafood imports because even though the Chinese government has started to focus on the issue, no one thinks it has a handle on the problem.
The WSJ goes high with news that a prominent hedge fund manager and the co-founder of an investment advisory firm that lost $1.5 billion with Bernard Madoff was discovered dead yesterday in an apparent suicide at his office. Thierry Magon de La Villehuchet apparently didn't leave a suicide note, but sleeping pills and a box cutter were found under his desk. If the death is in fact connected to the Madoff scandal, "it will be the highest-profile tragedy yet in a case that has touched investors world-wide," notes the WSJ.
In an op-ed piece in the WSJ, Mark Bowden says President Bush should ask the Iraqi government to pardon Muntader al-Zaidi, the journalist who threw his shoes at him. There are many reports that Zaidi has been treated roughly since he was taken into custody and now faces as many as 15 years in prison, "one for every one of his 15 minutes of fame." Pushing for a pardon would not only reflect well on Bush but could also destroy much of the folk hero status that Zaidi now enjoys. Right now, the video of that day looks certain to become one of the images that will define the Bush presidency. "With a simple gesture of reprieve, he could completely rise above it," Bowden writes. The journalist "would be nothing more than a rude prankster. The president would be the story's hero."