Friday, February 27, 2009

Obama at LeJuene

Euphemistically Ending the War in Iraq

“Next month will mark the sixth anniversary of the war in Iraq. By any measure this has already been a long war.”

Those were the first substantive words of today’s speech by President Barack Obama at the U.S. Marine Corps base, Camp Lejuene, NC. I listened to/watched the speech and then found the text posted on the New York Times website.

There is good news, not so good news, almost bad news, and news many hoped they would not hear.

The “good news” is that in meeting his pledge to end the war in Iraq “responsibly,” Obama will adhere to the target date of December 31, 2011 for all U.S. troops to depart Iraq as called for in the U.S.-Iraq withdrawal agreement signed this past December by President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

The “not so good news” in the speech is that U.S. brigade combat teams will continue to go on “combat missions” through August 31, 2010. This comes out to be 18 months following Obama’s inauguration whereas when he was campaigning for the presidency he repeatedly pledged a 16 month period – but always with the caveat of consulting with military officers on the ground.

The “almost bad news” is the number of “non-combat” soldiers and Marines who will remain in Iraq after the end of combat missions: 35,000-50,000. They will be designated as enablers, advisors, training support, possibly “force protection” units – but the words “offensive” or “combat” will not be associated with the missions performed.

So what exactly will this “residual” one-third of the current U.S. contingent (142,000) do in the 16 months between the end of “combat missions” and the final withdrawal date?

As outlined by the president, the troops that are in Iraq during this transitional period will:

- advise, train, and support operations of non-sectarian Iraqi security forces;

- conduct “targeted” counterterrorism missions; and

- provide security for civilians (e.g., U.S. diplomats and aid workers) working with
Iraqis to rebuild their country.

The White House will strenuously deny that any of these three transitional missions involve “combat.” Their argument will revolve around the absence of “offensive operational planning,” with emphasis on the absence of “offensive intent” by commanders on the ground. (Such word games go back to the 1940s when the U.S. created the Department of “Defense” and the Secretary of War became the Secretary of the Army – a nominative “who” rather than a descriptive “activator.”Of course, had the change not been made, the “Secretary of War” would have invited the creation of a “Secretary of Peace.)

The news no one wanted to hear was that more Marines would be going to Afghanistan to fight the insurgencies there. Given the condition of the country and the growing strength of the Taliban opposition, there is always the prospect that U.S. residual forces will not be able to sustain the “gains” in Iraq, possibly requiring that more troops go into Iraq or come out on an extended scale.

And then there is the historical record of administrations diverting troops or intentionally withholding from Congress information on the role of “advisors.” One need only think back to Vietnam which started as an “advisory mission.” In the 1980s 55 training “advisors” were dispatched by the Reagan administration to El Salvador while another contingent went to the Philippines. They were ostensibly to train government forces in how to conduct counterinsurgency operations against communists. Some of the U.S. “advisors” started to accompany the indigenous units on operations, prompting Congress, when it discovered the advisors were participating in the operations (as “observers” only, the Pentagon assured lawmakers), to end the practice. The same rational infected the “advisors” sent to Colombia to train Colombian army troops on how to fight the drug lords – a task complicated by the two powerful anti-government insurgent groups that at times controlled fully a third of the country.

As for the other two “transitional” missions, no matter how one cuts it, “counter-terrorism” is an offensively oriented operation because it requires seeking out terrorists and denying them the opportunity to implement their plans. Similarly, “force protection” might be an “operational defensive activity” as part of a campaign plan, but tactically it is clearly offensive-oriented.

Finally, it is important not to overlook the fact that while somewhere around 100,000 U.S. troops will filter out of Iraq over the next 18 months, next door in Afghanistan some 17,000 more Marines and soldiers will arrive to “defend” the government of Hamid Karzai.

How long that effort will last was not addressed by Mr. Obama. That undoubtedly will be in a not-too-distant future speech before too many more lives are lost.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The New Military Economics

Near the end of his February 24th address to a joint session of Congress and to the U.S. public – in what would be billed as a “State of the Union” speech in most any other year – President Obama turned from the economic state of the country, the primary subject for the night, to national security.

Or so it might have seemed.

Obama however, never really strayed from the economic aspects about which he is concerned – in particular jobs and technological prowess at reasonable cost.

On jobs, he announced that the military would add more jobs. What is unclear is whether these jobs are the balance of the increased size of the Army and the Marine Corps that began in George W. Bush’s second term (65,000 more Army and 27,000 more Marines to totals of 547,000 and 202,000, respectively) or if the new administration plans to make further increases over the new baselines.

Given the pressure on the deficit from the economic crisis that has gripped the country, it seems unlikely that more personnel will be authorized.

On technology, the main point the President made was that the Pentagon’s addiction to “no-bid” contracting (the equivalent of congressional earmarks) was at an end. This practice, which often was tied to “cost-plus” contracts, operated as a virtual blank check that transferred taxpayer dollars to industry coffers.

In this regard, it seems most interesting that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has – according to CNN – called in the Chairman, the Vice Chairman, and the service chiefs who comprise the Joint Chiefs and requested each sign a “non-disclosure” document on the military budget. This suggests that the new administration is going to slash significant weapons systems and it does not want the contractors or the congressional delegations with defense production activities in their district/state to start the expected opposition to the cuts before the final choices are made.

The systems that are vulnerable were – in effect – named by Obama last night: the systems conceived in the Cold War to counter expected advances by the former Soviet Union, advances that never appeared.

Tomorrow the budget outline will become public. It should be an interesting weekend.

Responses from FCNL Interns to the President's Speech

Over on FCNL's intern blog, people have been talking about and responding to the president's address to Congress last night.

  • Alexandra was disappointed the president didn't mention immigration.

  • Karyn writes about how Obama is changing bad theology, one word at a time.

  • Stephen calls the speech "one of the most hopeful, promising speeches in a long time."

  • Caroline shares her serious, and less serious, responses to the second half of the speech.\

I invite you to take a look at these posts and then check out the responses from other FCNL staff.

Hope and Concern

Jim Cason, FCNL
Guest Blogger

The president last night gave me hope.

I don't have a magic wand to fix the economy. Listening to the president's address to Congress on February 24, I did find myself appreciating his comments about the importance of not just reviving the economy, but investing in the economy this country will need a decade from now. The government cannot afford to spend all of these resources jump starting the economy of ten years ago. The president, the Congress, and all of the people in this country need to get working urgently on the task of building the economy the United States will need ten years from now, with investments to protect the environment, reform our health care system and improve education.

I've watched almost every presidential address to Congress in the last two decades. I find the pomp and circumstances a bit annoying and trite. But the president's words last night were not trite, and his comments on domestic policy gave me hope.

I also had one concern.

Understandably, foreign policy was not a big focus of the president's address. I was heartened by the president's call for a "new era of engagement" and his promise to "not shun the negotiating table" - both issues on which FCNL has urge the president to act. The president's comments about his next war, the expansion of the U.S. military footprint in Afghanistan, left me disappointed. His comments on Afghanistan could have been spoken by the last president. Is the U.S. doomed to continue the failed policies of the past in Afghanistan, but this time with a few more troops, or can the president craft a new, comprehensive strategy in Afghanistan and the region?

I don't know the answer. What I read in the press suggests there is an active debate within the administration about how to stop the spiraling violence in Afghanistan - many of the president's own advisors are calling for negotiations, including negotiations with the Taliban, and for expand efforts to address the development needs of people in one of the poorest countries on earth. To my mind the president missed an opportunity to use the words diplomacy and development specifically in reference to Afghanistan. We at FCNL will need to keep urging him in that direction.

Obama Put Wall Street on notice but what about military industries?

Joe Volk, FCNL
Guest Blogger

As I heard him last night, when President Obama addressed a Joint Session of Congress, he spoke truth to power on Wall Street. Basically he said, "Thanks to your greed, narcissism, lack of foresight, short term priorities, and a disregard for the long term, America is not number one anymore; you will change your ways or be replaced." Good for our president.

Now, will President Obama exercise the same courage and conviction to speak truth to power in the military industries? Wall Street has run the American economy into the ditch and taken the global economy along with it like a trailer in tow. U.S. military industries have taken the federal budget into a ditch and taken human needs and critical infrastructure programs like a trailer in tow. We need a president who can exercise "tough love" with war profiteers who have been pilfering American tax dollars for exorbitant profits for decades.

To his three major challenges that he named last night - Sustainable energy, health care reform, and education- President Obama will need to add a fourth: demilitarizing the federal budget and reducing military spending from the current $800 billion a year to $250 billion by 2012. First he needs an audit of all military (so-called "050") spending, and he'll have a tough time getting that, because the Pentagon designed its books so that they cannot be audited.

So, here's my recommendation to President Obama: shine the light on all U.S. military spending by promising to make all Department of Defense spending auditable and transparent by 2010. Once the American people see where all their tax dollars go in wasteful military spending, he'll have the popular support he needs to move those dollars to job creation through initiatives for sustainable energy, health care reform, and education. The war profiteers count on hiding in the shadows of accounts that cannot be audited. Civilian control of the military is an essential element of a democracy, and unless we know where the money goes, we civilians have little control.

Monday, February 23, 2009

A Deluge of Greed III

(Continued from February 20)

I suspect Westhusing, like most active duty military officers, generally regarded contractors as non-professionals who were really over in Iraq to make a fast buck. What he could not comprehend was the same lack of professionalism among the uniformed military, among those sworn to defend the Constitution against all enemies even if it meant paying the ultimate price, making the ultimate sacrifice. His fellow officers seemed more interested in serving their time – what is often called “checking the box” marked “combat veteran” on one’s service record – and getting home in one piece than in fulfilling the promises made by President Bush that “as Iraqi forces stand up, American forces will stand down.”

Westhusing truly believed in the crusade against Saddam Hussein that President and commander in chief George W. Bush declared in March 2003. But while the president simply asserted that his war on Saddam’s regime was a “just war,” Westhusing could marshal the classical arguments from Cicero to the current conflict to “prove” the president’s claim. (Some media reported that before he left West Point for pre-deployment training, Westhusing “debated” with the senior colonel overseeing the philosophy instructors as to whether the Iraq war was “just.” None of the accounts indicated who “won.”)

Put another way, Westhusing’s entire mind-set, his emotional and rational energy, committed him to the belief that if he participated in the Iraq venture, he would find experiential validation for his trust in his commander in chief, validation for the profession of arms and its system of values, and validation for his conclusion that God’s justice was being furthered in Iraq through the United States and its coalition partners.

By April 2005, according to army investigators who questioned, Westhusing’s co-workers, he became less communicative and less positive about his mission. An anonymous letter accusing USIS of falsifying training reports, fraudulent billing for services not rendered, and even the murder of Iraqi civilians, added to Westhusing’s darkening outlook. He reported the allegations to higher-ranking officers in his chain of command, but the subsequent enquiry cleared USIS of wrongdoing.

Apparently Colonel Westhusing did not – nor could he – accept this finding. I suggest that in the four months he had been in the combat zone he had seen, from his reference point, a nearly wholesale betrayal of the military professional’s code of honor at every level of command. The anonymous letter acted as independent verification of the empirical “evidence” visible during planning meetings with Iraqi officials and USIS contractors. His inability to force the system to acknowledge its betrayal of the vision for Iraq that he shared with President Bush became an indictment of his own professional inadequacies. And as part of the iron-clad hierarchy that is the military, he was as guilty as every other officer of this sordid betrayal.

And with that, he could not live.


In early February 2009, five years after becoming the first and only Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, Stuart Bowen warned Congress that the absence of an adequate management structure – a professional structure – to implement rebuilding in Afghanistan will result in the same debacle as occurred in Iraq. The latter cost U.S. taxpayers and Iraqis $50 billion; $30 billion has already been poured into Afghanistan with no end in sight. The problem in both countries is that the Bush administration did not have a strategy for reconstituting good governance in either nation.

Friday, February 20, 2009

A Deluge of Greed II

(Continued from the February 18 Blog)

It was June 5, 2005, just over a month before he was due to return home, that the body of Colonel Ted Westhusing is discovered in his trailer at Camp Dublin, Baghdad.

Some immediately suspected murder. But this death was neither assassination nor accident. Official Army accounts said nothing about signs of a struggle or thrashing about. Everything was orderly and neat, just like the officer himself when he was still among the living.

Everything, that is, except for the fatal wound behind his left temple.

If one is to believe the profile in the “Texas Observer,” Colonel Ted Westhusing was an idealist, even a perfectionist when it came to the ethical standards to which he held himself. The profile suggested a man who literally lived day-to-day according to the maxim “everything in its place and a place for everything.” As for the moral order, he thrived on the principles of his Roman Catholic upbringing that drew strict lines between good and evil, grace and sin, heaven and hell.

Given the close parallels between the rigid hierarchical structures of the two institutions and their equally strict and uncompromising moral codes, it is not surprising that Westhusing was attracted to military life in general and to West Point in particular. The Academy’s strict honor code – “a cadet does not lie, cheat, or steal or tolerate those who do” – matched his concept of the perfect – because it was a statement of the perfected life.

Westhusing entered West Point in the summer of 1979 in the class of \ 1983. One can imagine him soaking up the idealism that permeates life at the Academy. Living West Point’s motto – Duty, Honor, Country – in companionship with 4,000 other cadets would be the nearest thing to Nirvana on this earth.

I never met Ted Westhusing. I was too far ahead in time as a cadet (1962-1966) and then as an instructor (1972-1975) for our paths to cross at West Point. By the time he was commissioned I was in the intelligence world overseas and by the time he was teaching at West Point in the English Department I had retired. But I think I understand a little of how he thought and what drove him as a cadet and officer.

Like Westhusing, I taught in the Department of English. But the subject matter I taught in the mandatory senior year survey course was not grammar or even literature per se but philosophy, comparative religion, the philosophy of science, aesthetics, and fundamental psychology.

Westhusing would have been in his element while taking this course. He must have excelled here as he did in other fields, for he graduated third in his class. Moreover, he later went on to earn his doctorate in philosophy and returned as a full professor to teach in the English department. He undoubtedly could have applied for appointment as a permanent professor and never have to move again until retirement.

But on “examining his life” as Socrates counseled, Westhusing must have felt that he had not “lived” life to the full extent necessary for authenticity. He could talk the talk but apparently felt that he had not walked the walk demanded by the military’s code of honor and the Church’s moral code.

Iraq could do that for him. But after five months on site, he died. With assassination, accident, and (obviously) natural causes eliminated as the proximate cause of death, all that remained was suicide. For a devout practicing Roman Catholic, such a finding should have given pause to investigators and military superiors – an urgent message that some aspect of Ted Westhusing’s mission to train Iraqi security forces had gone awry and was deeply flawed.

Westhusing arrived in Iraq in January 2005 on a six month tour. That this was to be a “hands-on” field assignment might be inferred from his official title which could not easily fit on a door: “Director, Counterterrorism/Special Operations, Civilian Police Training Team, Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq.” Under Saddam Hussein, the police were more often than not instruments of oppression, a force feared by the population. Westhusing’s title defined the dual challenge facing his team: invert the deep distrust of the Iraqi people toward the National Police by re- ordering the psychology of citizen-police relations to produce a highly disciplined unit that upheld principles of good governance and the rule of law.

It was a tall order, but Westhusing, as was typical, tore into the challenge with great zeal.

In his own way, Westhusing was as much a “fundamentalist” when it came to ethics, honor, and honesty as were the Islamists among the insurgent population. He simply assumed that everyone, whether part of the coalition forces or an Iraqi, were intent on creating a democratic Iraq whose population and government would embody the values and the morality that he esteemed and practiced himself.

Unfortunately, his expectations for the Iraqis and even for his fellow officers, American civilian contractors, and Pentagon contracting officials were not reciprocated.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A Deluge of Greed

Duty, Honor, Country: When Being Ethical Can Be A Killer

The February 15, 2009 New York Times carried an above-the-fold right-hand side front page story that, before long, may develop "legs."

Editors may have been drawn to the account because the circumstances involved Iraq and the dispersal of huge sums of money. Or the editors may have had a hunch that the information available was just the tip of the iceberg and, given enough time, the paper just might stumble onto the much larger tale.

The basic story – running this time under the headline Inquiry on Graft in Iraq Focuses on U.S. Officers – is not new. The Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) has been trying to trace what happened to $125 billion – the where, when, to whom, and under what circumstances – designated for the rebuilding of Iraq after the U.S.-led coalition deposed Saddam Hussein in 2003.

There have been allegations for some time that U.S. contracting officials were demanding or at a minimum were being offered – and some accepting – bribes or kickbacks for awarding contracts to the “right” companies, both Iraqi and U.S. To date, prosecutors have obtained 35 convictions for graft and bribery committed by contracting officers in Iraq. But the problem is not unique to Iraq. Last autumn, a U.S. Army major and his wife were arrested for skimming money off contracts to supply the Colombian armed forces with military equipment. They had been suspected of similar activity while the officer was assigned to Iraq, but he was reassigned before firm evidence was available.

But there was something else in the newspaper story. One civilian official reportedly confessed to accepting $225,000 to steer a multi-million dollar contract to a particular company. The day after she admitted her involvement, she committed suicide.

When I saw that, I immediately thought of another suicide in Iraq, one that, according to the details in the “Texas Observer,” came about because the officer involved simply could not countenance the greed and the graft that he saw all around him. It was so commonplace, so pervasive, that it seemed to overwhelm him – like Leonardo da Vinci’s obsession with drawings of “The Deluge” in his notebooks accompanied by the query: "Tell me if ever anything was done."

He was a West Point graduate, the honor code captain his senior year. As a cadet and then in his active service he took the motto of West Point literally. In Iraq, his job was to supervise training of all Iraqi security forces, a responsibility that depended in part on the procurement of military equipment through the contracting office established by the Pentagon in Baghdad.

It was here that principles and ethics collided head on with greed and graft. The loser was the West Point graduate.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Deja Vu Syndrome

Most Americans know and celebrate February 12 as the birthday of A. Lincoln, the sixteenth president of the United States.

Lincoln's presidenc,ymoreso than that of George W. Bush, was linked to war. Even before he reached Washington, the first states of the deep South had declared themselves free of the Union and were banding together to form the Confederate States of America.

Lincoln not only presided over the conduct of the American Civil War, he so dominated -- figuratively and almost literally -- American history in the period 1861-1865 that Americans in general must think hard to identify any of his contemporaries. The first shot fired at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor came on April 12, 1861; Lee surrendered to Grant April 9, 1865. Lincoln was inaugurated on March 4, 1865 and died from an assassin’s bullet April 15, 1865.

Lincoln’s vision of the post-war United States rested on what I call the “three Rs” of Reunification, Reconciliation, and Reconstitution. All were elementary efforts toward developing and implementing a re-ordered set of moral principles that recognized the inherent equality of all humanity and, in so doing, renounced the institution of slavery for all time.

On that same February 12, 1809, Charles Darwin entered the world as a British citizen. Darwin, author of The Origin of Species, was the person who finally saw through the mist of time and developed the theory of evolution to explain the variety of species – including homo sapiens – that inhabited the globe and the governing principles of the process by which some flourished while others faded.

Regrettably, Darwin’s conclusions and principles pointed to a distinctly negative trait in natural evolution: the propensity of the most physically fit in every species to survive and flourish at the expense of the less fit. Within the species, the weak are abandoned, expelled from the group, or killed. If accosted by a predator, the less agile within the group are at greater risk of falling prey – unless the weaker are able to compensate for their lack of physical strength.

It is this ability to find a substitute for the lack of physical power that has marked the rise of homo sapiens and the distribution of “power” – with the concomitant increase in the survivability of the numbers of this “tribe” which seems to be the only one that makes wholesale killing of its own species a regular part of daily life.

Put these reflections about human dignity and Nature into the context of the increasing intensity of the fighting along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border between the Taliban and their al-Qaeda supporters and the U.S. and NATO and today’s news:

- In the four years from June 2004 to June 2008, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the U.S. Army failed to account for 87,000 rifles, other side arms, and mortars sent to Afghanistan;

- Over the same period, the Pentagon failed to maintain complete records on another 135,000 weapons donated from other countries allied with the United States;

- Of the 87,000 rifles sent by the United States, the serial numbers of only 46,000 were even recorded while the balance – 41,000 – are unknown and therefore will be untraceable.

Back in August 2007, the GAO reported to Congress that the Pentagon could not account for another 190,000 rifles and pistols provided to Afghan security forces.

There is, of course, the very real possibility that most if not all of the missing weapons have fallen into the hands of the Taliban and their allies.

That this is more than mere speculation is borne out by the increasing numbers of insurgent fighters crossing from Pakistan to Afghanistan, the ability of the Taliban to maintain control over territory inside Afghanistan during the day, and the provision of “government services” to the rural population.

More pertinent is today’s announcement that the Pakistan government has negotiated a deal with the Islamist leaders of the Swat Valley in Pakistan to let them use Sharia as the basis of law in the area in return for which the tribal leaders will require the insurgents to stop fighting Islamabad.

But what about those rifles; will they be "traded" for what the insurgents are using now? Stay tuned: this could get quite conflated.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Yes There Are Real People in Ohio

In the 2000 and 2004 presidential sweepstakes, politicians cast covetous glances on Ohio. Money poured into the state, one of the so-called “swing states” that politicians and pundits said would decide which party, which presidential candidate, would occupy the White House.

Ohio was a swing-state because it was second only to Michigan in the steady rise erosion of the tax-paying manufacturing working base in the state as a whole and especially in automobile manufacturing and final assembly. Every year the accumulation of bad economic news seemed to mount higher regardless of the efforts by the state to stanch the flow of red ink. Paydays brought more pink slips than pay slips; unemployment ran higher than the national average; and as plants closed and incomes dropped and people spent less to make the unemployment checks (while they still came) or the money saved for other purposes but needed now, stretch further, small businesses started closing down and the number of indirect job losses boosted the number of the unemployed further.

In some parts of the state, even Mother Nature seemed to be in a contrarian mood. Heavy snows followed by ice followed by more snow coated highways and cars as well as walking paths, making movement more hazardous than normal. In more rural areas, where copses still harbor maple trees, those who still remember how and when to tap the trees for the raw syrup have fallen behind schedule in collecting the liquid while it is still flavorful The snow-ice-snow “sandwich” has also affected the deer population. They are eating – stripping may be more accurate – “winter” foliage cultivated by homeowners, everything from ground cover to bushes to trees of all kinds. And they are not stopping at the edges of undergrowth that keep them hidden from observation; the deer come right up to the houses.

But there is also a stirring of another kind in the land called Ohio.

What is beginning to take hold in Ohio as in other parts of the country that are not highly urbanized and highly politicized is the quiet determination of individuals to work together, to build new institutions, to set new standards, to tap the potential in their communities to make community a reality. This is a far cry from the isolation of the “powerful” who, to retain their position, sometimes do not stop at the line but step into illegalities in their attempts to reach for what they think is theirs.

Why this theme today, one day after the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln?

I am just back from visiting a university town in Ohio where I spoke with university faculty, students, and other “ordinary” men and women. They have felt the economic down-swing, but they have pulled together to help where they can and how they can those who are at risk of falling through the “social safety net.” For them, the greatest insecurity is not terrorism but economic, not just their individual situations but that of the community today and the community of tomorrow represented by the students.

Lincoln was in his own time and in his own way a master politician. But he was much more because he was one who was willing to constantly learn. Too often, we tend to rest on our achievements, however great or small they may be, and to remain thusly until our repose – if we are fortunate – is challenged sufficiently to rouse us to become involved again in the “race” of our species to learn about, to find, our humanity before we extinguish it altogether through violence on Nature and on each other.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Lincoln at 200

Six more days -- February 12 -- is the birthday of Abraham Lincoln. It will be the 200th anniversary of his birth.

More books have been written about Lincoln than about any other American, according to Bill Moyers. Some believe there are more books on Lincoln than any other historical figure except for Jesus Christ.

Listen for some reference to Lincoln in President Obama's speech Monday. How he mentions Lincoln in the context of the Civil War, slavery, and the other issues of the day may give a hint as to how Obama will move on his agenda for us today.

I will be in Ohio for most of next week, but I will be listening Monday and hope you will be listening too.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Opening the Opaque

Among his many campaign promises, Barack Obama said his administration would be the most transparent the nation has ever had.

While some will question whether he (or his immediate aides) are really trying to honor that pledge, there is little doubt that the new administration is far more open than its predecessor. Under the regime of Bush-Cheney, the supposition when an executive department or agency received a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request was that the person or agency making the request was not entitled to have or in any way confirm2ve access have the information requested. And when all else seemed as if it would fail to block a release of information, all the bureaucraextremist had to do was slap a classification on the information.

(Under Bush-Cheney it was well known that attempts were made to re-classify information that had been released into the public domain.)

One example of the change in attitude, in addition to presuming that those making a FOIA request for unclassified information (or even for government records marked “confidential” that can be declassified) should receive it, is a Defense Department policy directive that encourages all Defense intellgence agencies to provide to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) classified information that the GAO wants (and often needs) to assist Congress with oversight of the programs authorized and funded each year.

It’s not that Bush-Cheney tried to bend the principle of “separation of powers” as the springboard for their refusal to cooperate with Congress’ investigative arm. They simply ignored the GAO requests. Under law (31 U.S. C. 716d) the only recourse for the Comptroller General who runs the GAO is to file a civil action in federal district court. The Comptroller General cannot compel the intelligence agencies to honor his requests, but at least now he should not have to fight a Sysiphian battle every time.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Warring on Warriors

Four reports over the course of the weekend point to rapid “transformation” of Afghanistan from “the war Bush forgot” to “Obama’s war.” The first wa a short notice that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates would brief the president on troop levels in Afghanistan.

The second is the Army’s announcement that once again in 2008, a record number of service members – 128 – committed suicide. No “Pentagon official” was prepared to go on record to discuss the causes of these annual record-setting deaths. Even off-record murmurings were generally confined to the usual factors: financial, marital/personal, legal, and work. But if one examines the records, as the New York Times did (January 30, 2009), what jumps out is the correlation between multiple combat tours (until recently 15 months duration), the number of cases of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and suicides. Over the last four years, according to the Times, thirty percent of suicides occurred during deployment and 35 percent after completing a deployment. As for PTSD among soldiers with multiple tours, the rates of occurrence continue to be substantially higher than among soldiers on their first deployment.

A third related story is the increase in instances of domestic violence and the accelerating divorce rates involving returning troops. For some months, the Pentagon has known that one third of women serving in the military claimed they were victims of sexual harassment (unfortunately not further defined). Last week, CBS News, in a two-night report, said that nationwide police statistics reveal that in 50 percent of domestic violence cases at least one person involved was in the military. Over the last ten years, almost 90 women have been killed

The fourth, compared to the above, might seem trivial, but for those in and out of the military who have experienced the condition, it can be a source of debilitating pain. And with more troops headed for Afghanistan, the situation will only get worse.

That part of Afghanistan where the U.S. plans to base the reinforcements it is sending into the war is extremely rugged and at an extremely high altitude. Despite these conditions, the weight of equipment and protective personal armor the individual soldier is expected to carry has gone from a maximum of 65 to 80 pounds (which even as an infantry platoon leader I never came close to carrying even on a “forced march” during training) to between 130-150 pounds for a typical three-day mission (Washington Post, February 1, 2009). That’s as much as three times the recommended weight load of 50 pounds per Marine in an unidentified 2007 Department of the Navy study (WP). The combination of high altitudes with thinner oxygen, rugged terrain which limits vehicle usage, and the weight of equipment deemed “essential” is causing a new kind of stress whose “bump-on” effect is increasing the numbers of non-deployable troops. The Army lists 257,000”acute orthopedic injuries (muscular or skeletal stress or fractures) for 2007, up by 10,000from 2006.

The increased numbers of troops President Obama plans to send to Afghanistan, together with the growing number of temporary and, more seriously, “permanent non-deployables” (20,000 according to the Army) from physical and psychological stress could leave the Army once again scraping up anyone who still is walking and can carry a weapon. But those so identified are increasingly likely to be many who suffer from PTSD but who, being part of the “warrior culture,” are reluctant to seek help.

Since the start of the war in Afghanistan in October 2001, the Army has been found wanting in the provision of equipment to troops in the field, in the administrative attention paid to wounded troops who have been returned to the U.S., and in the joint responsibility with the Veteran’s Department for continued care for the physical, mental and financial well-being of those who have fought the “war on terror.” Barack Obama was elected in part because the American public rejected the idea of witnessing the return of more new veterans, wounded or not, traumatized or not, by the experience of constant combat with an adversary that outlasted three great empires because they knew the terrain, were used to the thin air, were much more mobile than the outsiders., and above all were more committed to the struggle than the occupying power

In the late 19th century, the U.S. Cavalry found itself stymied in the effort to force the Lakota and a few other Native American tribes onto reservation\ns. Warrior for warrior, the Plains Indians were one of the most accomplished light cavalry forces in the world. They knew the land, they were highly mobile, they were committed to the struggle to retain their way of life – and for years they ran rings around the soldiers for seven, eight, or nine months a year depending on the severity of the weather. The soldiers finally won because the tribes had no central organization and because they had to go into “winter quarters” when the snows came and severely limited their mobility. The Army, with better logistics and sturdier animals (mules instead of horses), was still able to campaign and eventually prevailed.

In about four months, the 2009 fighting season in Afghanistan will be intensifying. Another three months will see the elections for the presidency of the country. Those months can be expected to see concerted efforts by the insurgents to disrupt or even force cancellation of the balloting by the bullet.

For his part, President Obama seems committed to his campaign statements concerning the upswing in the number of U.S. warriors destined for Afghanistan. But he also has the next four months to initiate a diplomatic and foreign aid surge that could preempt the insurgency’s appeal – and its threats – to good governance, even if it is “Afghan style.” Taking this course might just give the Afghans the incentive to rebuild their country and, in the process, get America’s warriors home sooner rather than later and with fewer casualties.