Daily Archives: February 8, 2011

Gen Petraeus’s plans to triple armed Afghan villagers could fuel conflicts and empower warlords

Financial Times | Feb 7, 2011

By Matthew Green in Kabul

General David Petraeus, the top US and Nato commander in Afghanistan, plans to triple a scheme that has armed thousands of village recruits, dismissing fears that the strategy could nurture a new generation of warlords.

With violence in Afghanistan rising and Nato allies anxious to hand over to Afghan forces in 2014, Gen Petraeus wants to bolster security, in part by sending 12-man teams of US special forces to train locals.

Human rights groups and aid agencies have called for the plan to be scrapped, fearing it threatens to fuel conflicts and empower the kind of militia commanders who ravaged Afghanistan during years of civil war in the 1990s. The government of Hamid Karzai, the president, has also been wary of similar initiatives.

But Gen Petraeus said the scheme was vital in enlisting the support of locals.

“The idea is that these actually mobilise not just individuals, but communities,” he told the Financial Times. “Elders support it. The elders also police it to a degree.”

The plan has echoes of the approach Gen Petraeus adopted while commanding the 2007 troop surge in Iraq, where he encouraged the Awakening movement of Sunni tribes that helped curb violence.

But he said the Afghan Local Police – as the plan is known – would be a very different exercise. It aims to work with the government to reach often isolated areas where people wanted help to resist the Taliban.

To critics, the scheme represents a quick-fix solution adopted to meet political pressures for withdrawal in western capitals.

Since Gen Petraeus took command of international forces in Afghanistan in July, the programme has been started in 17 sites, with a total of more than 3,100 paid recruits, he said. The Nato-led force is awaiting Afghan government approval for more than 40 additional sites, and hopes to add another 4,500 men by spring, a US military official said.

The recruits, whose biometric data is recorded, are given a salary, registered weapons and khaki uniforms. Their primary role is to man checkpoints or patrol their home areas.

General Petraeus says the training is being conducted with the oversight of Afghan authorities, local government, police and elders. “They work for the district chief of police, not a local warlord or elder or power-broker,” he said.

Nato allies have launched a sucession of similar schemes with scant success, but US officials believe extra resources and closer collaboration with the government will deliver results. A similar programme, the Local Defence Initiative, ran into problems last year when it donated $1m to the Shinwari tribe in the eastern Nangahar Province, which became embroiled in a land dispute last year instead of fighting the Taliban, according to Oxfam.

Readers upset by Huffington Post AOL take-over

AOL, led by Tim Armstrong, is making waves with its $315m deal to buy Arianna Huffington’s website network

Financial Times | Feb 7, 2011

By David Gelles in New York and Matthew Garrahan in Los Angeles

AOL has sharply divided opinion on the web with its purchase of one of the biggest names in the blogosphere.

The US internet company will buy Huffington Post for $315m, the latest and most significant step it has taken to remake itself as a serious player in advertising-supported internet content.

The deal represents a big payday for Arianna Huffington, the political pundit who owns a significant stake in the left-leaning website which she co-founded in 2005. She will now become the face of AOL’s collection of online content, which includes everything from moviefone.com, the film information site, to the local news site Patch, and the TechCrunch technology blog.

But many comments posted on Huffington Post since the deal was announced late on Sunday expressed outrage that the company being sold to a conglomerate. “I think it’s time to take Huffpo out of my favourites,” wrote one commenter. “So disappointed.”

AOL is still reliant on its dwindling dial-up internet access business for much of the company’s profits. Yet it has been building a network of specialist sites, and the Huffington Post will give it access to one of the largest audiences among news websites.

The Huffington Post’s sites have a monthly audience of nearly 25m unique users who come for a blend of comment and news, often written by unpaid bloggers and derived from other sources around the net.

“[The deal] does make sense,” said Shahid Khan, a consultant with MediaMorph. AOL will round out “its offering with a well-respected news and politics site, and it rounds out its demographic with a well-educated and younger audience”.

The Huffington Post’s revenues from advertising were about $30m last year when it was profitable for the first time. It expects revenues to grow in the coming years as website traffic increases and online advertising continues its rebound. Yet its costs may increase as it begins investing in original content and paying high-profile writers.

With AOL paying $315m, nearly all in cash, the Huffington Post has commanded a much higher multiple than TechCrunch, which had revenues of about $10m when it was sold in September to AOL for between $25m and $40m. The Huffington Post was started with backing from several liberal supporters, including Larry David, the creator of Seinfeld, and David Geffen, the film and music billionaire. It has taken an additional $35m in venture capital.

Tim Armstrong, a former Google advertising executive, was appointed AOL chief executive in 2009 with a mandate to reinvent the company as a hub of specialised online content. So far his efforts to cash in on this strategy have fallen flat in the eyes of many analysts and observers.

“This acquisition by AOL is another shot at aggregating more content, but probably not yet knowing quite what to do with it,” said Joel Hollander, former chief executive of CBS Radio.

AOL also has a patchy track record in mergers and acquisitions. It sold ICQ, the instant messaging service, last year for $187.5m – less than half of what it paid for it in 1998. It also made a big loss on Bebo, the social networking site.

Its biggest deal was also widely regarded as the worst in history. It acquired Time Warner in an all-share deal worth $164bn in 2001. Anticipated synergies failed to materialise and a string of writedowns followed including a $100bn charge only a year later. AOL was eventually spun out of Time Warner in 2009.

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