Britain takes command of NATO forces in Afghanistan this month, increasing its force size from 850 to a peak of 5,700 soldiers and concentrating them in the restive south. The United States, which has borne the brunt of the military casualties, will reduce its presence by about 2,500 soldiers (from 19,000). In anticipation of the shift, Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, confronted his Pakistani counterpart, Pervez Musharraf, in February with evidence that insurgents are being trained, equipped, and deployed from Pakistan. Speaking with the backing of Britain and the United States, Karzai said his hope is that Musharraf will crack down and mitigate the attacks.
In what scholars are calling a tragedy, a set of nineteen watercolors by the poet William Blake—a surprise discovery in a Glasgow secondhand bookstore in 2001—will be split up and individually auctioned off today by Sotheby’s in New York. The paintings, commissioned to illustrate “The Grave,” a popular eighteenth-century Scottish poem, are typically creepy depictions of boneyards, angels, twisted bodies, and swirling spirits. The works, which were allowed to leave the U.K. after the Tate in Britain failed to beat an offer by a private investor, are expected to fetch a collective $12 million to $17.5 million.
Kinky Friedman, the black-clad, cigar-puffing Jewish country singer-songwriter (who can forget “They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Anymore”?), is making a serious run for Texas governor on the strength of his wit and campaign slogans like “Why the hell not?” and “How hard can it be?” His media strategist and campaign director have already led one unlikely populist to a governor’s mansion: former pro wrestler Jesse “The Body” Ventura, elected in Minnesota in 1998. Today is the deadline by which Friedman, who’s running as an independent, must submit the 45,000 signatures necessary to get himself on the ballot. Naturally, the effort is being filmed for reality TV. The plot is developing nicely: Friedman has raised three times more money than the top two Democrats combined.
After today, seniors who sign up for the monstrously complex Medicare prescription-drug benefit will face a penalty: their premium cost will increase at least 1 percent for every month they delay. Democrats aren’t about to let the deadline pass quietly. They’ve made widespread dissatisfaction with the program—initially thought to be a shrewd Republican tactic that would win elderly voters—a central part of this year’s congressional campaigns. Along with dubbing the penalty a “complexity tax” on the elderly, Democrats will use today’s deadline to repeat charges that Republicans, by neglecting to use the government’s negotiating power to lower drug costs, favor corporations over seniors.
In what’s sure to be a frenzy of publicity, the cinematic version of Dan Brown’s best- selling book The Da Vinci Code opens today at the Cannes Film Festival. The movie’s plot, like the book’s, centers on Opus Dei, the secretive Catholic organization that, in Brown’s story, kills several people to maintain a 2,000-year-old Christian conspiracy. Anticipating controversy, Sony Pictures has provided religious leaders with a Web site to publish rebuttals; Opus Dei has launched a PR campaign; and Random House, which has printed 40 million hardcover copies of the book, will release the North American paperback to coincide with the hype.
Serbia and Montenegro, the last vestige of the old Yugoslav federation, may finally split today. Montenegro, a republic on the Adriatic Sea that hasn’t existed independently since 1918, when it joined what would later become Yugoslavia, will regain its sovereignty if voters approve a new referendum. Since 1992, Montenegro has been the smaller (620,000 of 7.5 million citizens) in a two-state union with Serbia (the name “Yugoslavia” was dropped altogether in 2003). Pro-independence factions, including the current prime minister, Milo Djukanovic, are miffed over a European Union–brokered deal that requires, for independence, a voter turnout of at least 50 percent and a “yes” vote of 55 percent.
Fidel Castro turns eighty this year, and the United States is planning for what’s next. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has reconvened the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, a group President Bush created to “hasten and ease Cuba’s democratic transition.” Its latest report is due this month. The commission hopes to prevent the succession of Castro’s younger brother, seventy-four-year-old Raúl, by supporting the democratic opposition, and—in an uncharacteristic act of post-regime planning—has already divided duties among Bush’s Cabinet members. Despite these actions, freedom in Cuba is not yet on the march: political repression is booming, and the economy is humming, thanks largely to tourism and economic partnerships with socialist Venezuela and communist China.