Late Sunday night, word came from the Obama administration that U.S. officials had dropped arms, weapons and medical supplies to Kurdish forces in northern Syria who were battling members of the Islamic State.
The news marked a new frontier in a monthslong campaign in that country. American forces have dropped bombs on Islamic State targets in Syria, are set to train moderate rebels there and have provided some arms. But until Sunday, the U.S. had not done an airdrop.
On Tuesday, the news turned sour. The Islamic State posted a video on its YouTube channel claiming that they had captured some of the supplies that had been meant for their adversaries. Provided their claims are true, this interception raises several questions. The first is: Do airdrops like this work? The second and third are: What kind of weapons does the Islamic State actually have, and what is the U.S. using to target them?
In the latest episode of Drinking & Talking, The Huffington Post's Sam Stein and David Wood answer these questions along with State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, Time magazine reporter Mark Thompson, and the Center for a New American Security's Nora Bensahel. The segment was taped before the news of the airdrop, but it provides one of the most detailed explanations to date of how armed each side of the conflict really is, and what type of weapons and personnel may ultimately be needed.
Watch the video above.
WASHINGTON -- It's been a little more than a month since President Barack Obama announced an expanded fight against the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria. Few foreign policy officials would argue that this is anything less than the most complex military engagement undertaken during Obama's time in office.
Part of the difficulty is owed to the enemy, a ruthless, well-financed terrorist organization determined to establish a caliphate. Part of it is owed to the mission, which rests on shaky actors (moderate Syrian rebels) complimenting a disparate international coalition (ahem, Turkey).
In the latest episode of Drinking & Talking, the Huffington Post's Sam Stein and David Wood, along with State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, Time magazine reporter Mark Thompson, and the Center for a New American Security's Nora Bensahel, tackle all of this. They answer several key questions, including whether the American public has the stomach for a prolonged engagement, what the hardest diplomatic lift has been for the United States, and what role the Iranians will play.
It's a complex, thorough, and ultimately sobering conversation -- which is why we brought the booze.
Watch the video above. Here's an index of key moments in the discussion:
00:35 – How Screwed Are We?
03:50 – That’s The Problem! We Don’t Know The Endgame
05:55 – America Is Terrible At Being Patient
09:50 – The Boots And The Ground
13:25 – Banks Have Money, That’s Why ISIS Robs Them
16:20 – Joe Biden, Truth-Teller?
17:10 – Iran Has A Role To Play: But What Role Is It?
19:20 – A Few Trillion Here, A Few Trillion There
Listen to or download the audio below:
Well after midnight on a recent hot night, John Cvikota, a lean, 26-year-old Chicagoan, strapped on a hundred pounds of gear (helmet, body armor, weapons, ammunition, rations and water, parachute, safety chute, radio, combat first aid kit, gas mask), waddled out onto the runway with 64 other paratroopers, clambered up the rear ramp of a C-130 cargo plane and squeezed into the canvas sling seats along the fuselage.
After the ramp went up and the C-130 trundled out onto the runway and labored into the air, it got really hot. One paratrooper slumped over as a heat casualty and was dragged into a corner and treated by a medic.
The battalion's first casualty, Cvikota thought, and they hadn't even gotten to the fight yet. They were headed into 12 days of intense war games at the Army's Joint Readiness Training Center in Louisiana. The training is to prepare the 82nd Airborne Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team to fight in an area like Iraq and Syria against an enemy like ISIS -- in the event that things there spin out of control and the Obama administration's "no boots on the ground" policy becomes inoperative.
At a shouted command from the jumpmaster and blinking lights that signaled 10 minutes until the jump, Cvikota and the others staggered to their feet, each hooking up to a steel cable that would ensure their chutes were yanked open after they jumped. Many carried extra gear: a bulky radio, a mortar base plate or a machine gun barrel. All were struggling to remain upright under the weight. Sweat ran down their faces and soaked their body armor. Legs shook from the strain as the plane swayed toward the drop zone. "It was a nightmare," Cvikota said later.
One paratrooper's chute suddenly burst from his pack, a horrifying premature release. "People were freaking out," said Cvikota. Some, no doubt, were thinking of Sgt. Shaina B. Schmigel, a member of Cvikota's brigade who was killed during a training jump last May, an incident still under investigation.
When Cvikota could finally lean out the door and let his weight carry him off into the night, it was a relief, he said.
All this transpired the night before Congress fled from Washington to indulge in its fall campaign and vacation, without having bothered to debate or vote on war.
In mid-October the 2nd Brigade will become the core element of the U.S. Global Ready Force, on standing alert to assault into any trouble spot. Whether Congress debates it or not.
There has always been a vast gulf between those who practice politics and those who practice war. Part of that divide is defined by who's doing hands-dirty, grueling, up-all-night work. Paratroopers were training hard, living in the dirt, getting four hours of sleep a night if they were lucky. Congress was at home. And occasionally engaging in the kind of personal nastiness that wouldn't be tolerated in an airborne platoon.
I thought about that as I squatted down in the Louisiana woods to talk with Cvikota. Four days after his jump, he was standing chest-deep in a fighting position with his weapon aimed at the woodline, taking his turn on guard duty after having worked all night as the battalion's battle captain. That job requires organizing, coordinating and supervising all the missions underway. The previous night one of his platoons was hit by an IED and then small arms fire. The paratroopers, using blanks, fought their way clear. "Not a big deal," Cvikota said.
Then the enemy broke into a chemical weapons storage site. "That's when it got hectic," he said. "I work up the colonel for that."
I asked him what he thought about ISIS, about the beheadings of Americans they'd held hostage, and whether he was eager to go fight. He thought for a while. "We have a pretty aggressive mission," he said finally. "We jump into hostile territory when nobody else can get there. We work hard at that -- these paratroopers are working hard," he said, nodding at a line of weary, sweat-stained soldiers plodding in from a patrol.
Nobody wants war, he said. "But you want an opportunity to serve your country."
This post has been updated to correct the spelling of John Cvikota's name.
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- Eric Shinseki triumphed over a severe combat wound in Vietnam, outmaneuvered the crusty Old Guard in the Pentagon and stared down an icy Donald Rumsfeld.
But now this courtly, soft-spoken, stubborn soldier is engaged in the biggest gamble of his career -- and hanging in the balance is the well-being of millions of veterans and their families.
Drafted four years ago to fix what President Barack Obama called the "broken bureaucracy" of the Department of Veterans Affairs, Shinseki wagered that as VA secretary, he could eliminate the scandalous backlog of veterans' claims for benefits, a mountain of paperwork so bad it has become a reliable staple of national comedy.
Rather than tinkering at the margins as previous leaders of the VA had done, Shinseki has led a direct attack on the department's 19th century practice of processing claims with paper and stubby pencils. His intent is to demolish the old system and replace it with something any user of Amazon or Google would recognize: automated, interactive digital processing that is light-years ahead in speed and accuracy.
In a bold move unusual for Washington, where ducking accountability is an art form, Shinseki set himself a public deadline: By the end of 2015, clerks using the new system will process all claims within 125 days, with 98 percent accuracy.
Three years into the effort, Shinseki believes the results are promising. But not there yet.
Data posted weekly by the VA tell the tale: The backlog of claims older than 125 days currently numbers 584,308. And the VA's current accuracy rate is 88.9 percent.
Shinseki recently visited Huntington, W.Va., a Rust Belt river town deep in Appalachia, for a pep talk to some 200 VA clerks and claims specialists. He readily acknowledged the hard work it will take to reach his goal.
"I'm gonna continue to ask more of you," he told them, just days before his May 15 order that all VA claims specialists start putting in an additional 20 hours a month to chip away faster at the backlog. "Because we serve veterans, and until we get rid of the backlog, we've got work to do. And we're gonna get it done."
He believes there is reason for confidence.
The new digital system, called the Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS), has been installed and workers trained in its use at most VA offices, and it should be up and running department-wide by the end of the year. That would give the VA two years before Shinseki's deadline to erase the backlog.
Two other new digital systems are already operational: ebenefits, which 2.6 million veterans are using to file and track claims for health and education benefits, jobs, insurance and home loan certificates; and an online site to apply for benefits under the Post-9/11 GI Bill.
The do-it-yourself ebenefits system is shifting work normally done by VA clerks to the veterans themselves, while the GI Bill site has enabled the VA to handle a tidal wave of new claims for education benefits. In 2009, the VA processed 173,000 GI Bill claims using the old paper system; today, its automated system is handling 950,000 such claims a year.
Shinseki often cites the success of these two programs as the basis of his conviction that VBMS will transform the way the VA has done business. "We know what we're doing," he told The Huffington Post in an interview here.
But with most claims still arriving on paper, VA workers are caught in the transition, having to process both paper and digital claims at once. And Congress in the past several years has authorized the payment of compensation to tens of thousands of Vietnam veterans exposed to the herbicide Agent Orange, and to veterans of any war suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. These new claims are now piling up in VA mailrooms across the country.
Under the deluge of claims, VA managers have pushed their clerks to work ever harder. In 2010, for the first time ever, the department processed 1 million claims. In the door that year came 1.2 million claims, leaving them 200,000 claims behind. The next year, with clerks frantically experimenting with the new digital system, the VA again pushed out 1 million claims; in came 1.3 million.
Over the past four years, the VA has processed 4.1 million claims, paying out $203.9 billion in compensation and pension benefits. But during that period, it took in 4.6 million claims -- half a million more than it could handle.
Gradually, the VA has been sinking under the weight of accumulating claims, a politically volatile total "backlog" that has roller-coastered from 630,615 in January 2009 to 489,345 in January 2010 to 873,680 today.
Into this grim picture, Shinseki has been gradually inserting the VBMS automated processing system, even as software engineers issue patches and new versions. As of mid-May, roughly 18 percent of the VA workload, or 150,000 claims, is being handled by the new system, VA officials said.
ON VA'S FRONT LINE
Here at the Huntington regional office, where VBMS was installed last November, the staff is clearly struggling. Half of the workload comes on paper that has to be dealt with by hand. Some older files have been scanned into the new system. Clerks are hustling to keep the flow going in both systems at the same time.
Not surprisingly, productivity has dropped. Last November, as VBMS was being introduced here, clerks were processing claims in an average 173 days; this month, claims were pending an average of 230 days, according to VA data gathered by the Center for Investigative Reporting. That still beat the entire VA average of 277 days.
"Everybody in this office wants to do this," said one young VA claims specialist who rose to confront Shinseki. "We want to do the best we can. But it's very difficult to do the claims faster -- you'd better not make a mistake. And to be honest, everybody is so scared to death to make a mistake. But you have to make your numbers.
"The stress levels are going through the roof. We're afraid our jobs are on the line," she said.
"It's not perfect, I know that," Shinseki responded. "I am asking you to work as hard as you can and as accurately as you can."
And he drew laughter by asking, "Anybody here think you can process paper faster?"
Outside the VA, West Virginia veterans reflect a caution born of long and sometimes difficult experience.
"The VA people treat everybody very nice, in my opinion," Wes Sheppard, commander of the Huntington chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, told HuffPost. "But they'll tell you themselves they don't want you to leave your claim there with the understanding anything's going to happen right away. It might take a year or more. Well, a lot of people in that year, they may die. And the benefits they are supposed to get, then they don't get it."
Another West Virginia veteran who helps file and track claims on behalf of a service organization said the VA employees in Huntington "are really struggling, trying to get a handle on it," referring to VBMS. "I'd say six months down the road, when they get all the bugs worked out, the process will be quicker. But the folks there don't like it." (He asked not to be identified because he works closely with the Huntington VA.)
Actually, given the staggeringly backward system the department has used to process paper claims, it's a wonder anything gets done.
More than a million paper claims pour into the VA every year from veterans with diabetes, bad teeth, broken bones, pancreatic cancer, coronary heart disease, PTSD, traumatic brain injury, soft tissue carcinoma, kidney failure, bleeding gums, fallen arches and more.
Each claim requires medical examinations and verifications, typically from the Defense Department, VA medical centers and the veteran's private physician or behavioral health counselor. It may also require the veteran's service records, if they exist; birth, marriage and divorce certificates; letters of eligibility; verification of employment; addresses back so many years; legal status; and financial records. Incomplete claims have to be sent back to be redone. As the claim inches along, it acquires bulk, sheaves and reams of paper. It may be sent to the "claims bank" to be held awaiting a doctor's report or Department of Labor form. All this is mandated to certify that a veteran is being properly compensated for service-related medical conditions.
Eventually, someone puts rubber bands around the file to keep papers from slipping out.
Yet the file may still get misplaced or lost -- a common complaint.
When all the paperwork is assembled, sorted, stamped, certified, misplaced and rediscovered, and filed, clerks begin figuring out how much money the veteran will receive in compensation. They wrestle open a 15-inch book of "ratings" to find out what the VA pays for each specific, narrowly defined problem. Thus, the loss of two ribs is a 10 percent disability; the lost of six ribs is 60 percent. If you have a piece of your skull removed by surgeons or an enemy bullet, that's a 10 percent disability -- if the hole is less than the size of a quarter. But a dime-sized hole in the head plus two missing ribs doesn't add up to 20 percent; there's a complicated formula for figuring that out.
Then, there are charts that affix dollar amounts to disability percentages. Currently, a veteran with a 10 percent disability receives $129 a month; 50 percent leads to $810 a month; and a 100 percent disability is worth $2,816. Unless condition A, section B-22, sub-paragraph 19(b-f) applies ...
All this is eerily similar to the hopeless mess of paperwork that Charles Dickens memorably described in his novel Bleak House. Small wonder that dragging this process into the digital age has been something of a culture shock for the VA.
VBMS gathers and holds all these records in a searchable database, and figures out the disability percentage and compensation amount automatically. And instantly. VBMS will also enable veterans -- all veterans, not just those using ebenefits -- to check online the status of their claims, relieving the VA of the 15,000 to 20,000 calls it receives each day with questions like "Didja get my form?"
But that's when the system is fully operational.
The director of the Huntington VA regional office, Leanne Weldin, a decorated Iraq War veteran, acknowledged that having her employees' workload split between paper and digital processing has been stressful. "We are treading water," she said. "VBMS hasn't slowed us down, but it's a matter of getting the confidence to switch back and forth."
A claims specialist, who said she's been processing veterans' claims for 10 years and who VA officials insisted not be identified by name, described the difference. "It takes me 20 or 30 minutes to check through a paper file to find a document," she said, referring to a bulging 7-inch-thick, rubber-banded claim folder. "With VBMS, I can use a keyword search and it takes seconds."
Still, department officials are reluctant to claim that VBMS is already achieving what it promises: increased speed and accuracy.
"The jury is still out," said one senior official responsible for implementing the new system. "We are seeing efficiencies. I'd hate to throw out a hard number." The VA declined a request by HuffPost to name this senior official.
'THE HALF-EMPTY GLASS'
In the meantime, Shinseki is facing a deluge of criticism.
His insistence that he will meet his 2015 deadline has been met with catcalls and hoots of derision. A letter to President Obama demanding a "clear plan" to end the backlog, which ignored Shinseki's initiatives, was signed by 67 senators. The group Iraq Afghanistan Veterans of America flooded Capitol Hill with veterans demanding a presidential commission to investigate and clear the backlog. Time columnist Joe Klein even advised Obama to fire Shinseki.
The critics focus on the backlog as "a national disgrace" that seemingly leaves combat veterans languishing penniless while the VA ignores them. But VA data show that most of the claims making up the backlog come from veterans who are already receiving benefit from the VA. About 60 percent of the claims in the current backlog are supplemental -- for instance, requesting to add a dependent.
That's the case for Art Davis, a 36-year-old Navy veteran who was assigned to Iraq in 2007 to track and shoot down mortar shells and rockets fired toward the Green Zone in Baghdad. Out of the service in 2009, he applied for VA compensation for his diagnosed PTSD and other ailments, and within six months he began receiving a monthly check for about $1,100 as well as GI Bill benefits for college tuition and support.
In March 2012, he filed a supplemental claim for benefits for his wife and three children, worth about $400 a month. More than 450 days later, he is still waiting. He even buttonholed President Obama during a campaign stop in Ohio last year. The president promised to get him help -- and nothing happened.
"Shinseki keeps saying 2015, 2015! But he hasn't come out with a plan for helping people right now," Davis told HuffPost. "People are frustrated by the claims process and feel rejected -- people are committing suicide, and you can't tell me some of that isn't a result of this whole process."
Also typical is the experience of Jeff Kohler, a Navy veteran who was assigned to Iraq for a year on Army convoy missions. He returned home diagnosed with PTSD and mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI) and filed for disability in February 2010.
Inside of 13 months he began receiving some disability payments, but the VA denied his claim for brain injury and he appealed. A year later, the VA raised his payment for PTSD but again denied his claim for brain injury. He appealed again, and again the VA raised his compensation for PTSD. This March it finally granted his claim for mTBI. Rated at 70 percent disabled, Kohler receives about $1,200 a month in disability payments. He is 27.
Stories like this cut Shinseki to the quick. He holds a deep, almost mystical belief in the nobility and honor of military service, forged over his 38 years in uniform from West Point (class of 1965) through two combat tours in Vietnam, where he lost part of his right foot to a land mine and successfully fought to avoid medical retirement, becoming one of the first amputees to remain on active duty. He went on to command at the brigade, division and corps level, led U.S. and NATO forces in Europe, and was selected by President Bill Clinton as Army chief of staff, a position he held until June 2003.
At 70 years old, he feels responsible for the young soldiers he recruited and trained for combat, too many of whom were killed or badly wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan.
The VA's mission -- and his crusade -- is to get all veterans all the benefits they've earned.
"I shipped kids off to war, and this is a chance to take care of them when they come home and to take care of the kids I fought with in Vietnam," he told HuffPost last fall. He is not, he added, just going to "walk away from them."
Critics and doubters of Shinseki's quiet determination may have forgotten that in the spring of 2003, just before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, he was the only senior officer who reluctantly, but publicly, dismissed the Bush administration's war plan as inadequate. Under questioning by the Senate Armed Services Committee, Shinseki acknowledged what most senior officers knew but wouldn't say: that a war in Iraq would take roughly twice as many troops as Defense Secretary Rumsfeld had authorized. After an initial invasion, Shinseki testified, "ethnic tensions could lead to other problems" that would require a "significant ground force presence."
He was right -- but not forgiven. When Shinseki retired a few months later, Rumsfeld flaunted his displeasure by refusing to attend the traditional retirement ceremony. Shinseki has never mentioned the snub in public.
Critics may also have forgotten that it was Shinseki who foresaw the end of the era of heavy armored warfare in the late 1990s and forced the Army's infantry and armor units, and their heavyweight backers in the Pentagon, to accept a nontraditional weapon, the eight-wheeled Stryker fighting vehicle. It was used to good effect a few years later in Iraq and Afghanistan.
So Shinseki is undaunted. "I'm not leaving," he told HuffPost. "This is a big crossover year for us. The sooner we get into VBMS and the old paper stuff out, then our performance will go up, productivity and efficiency and accuracy will go up because we'll be focused on one thing."
"If you're going to make a change, make it big and bold -- walk up to the biggest guy on the block, stand in his face, and get it started," Shinseki said, explaining how he designs a tactical assault on bureaucracy.
As for the critics, he adds, "You always have folks that, you know, see the half-empty glass. You gotta just fight through it. They're not bad folks. They don't have the mission I do.
"Determination is 80 percent of most operations."
He always watches for the kids.
Peering through cameras and sensors from his computer station thousands of miles away, he absorbs the details of daily life in the villages below. He develops an eerie intimacy with his targets. Which house these kids belong to. When that mom goes out to market. Who visits and why. He tries to ensure innocents are nowhere near. Then he yells "Rifle!" and fires the missile, watching until "Splash," the detonation of the missile warhead. Until the last few seconds, if kids suddenly do appear, he can yank the missile away.
Bill "Sweet" Tart is a drone pilot, one of the most experienced in the U.S. military. A decorated Air Force colonel, he sat down for a frank chat with The Huffington Post's David Wood, providing a rare glimpse into the secretive U.S. drone wars.
President Obama's use of unmanned armed drones to kill thousands of suspected insurgents, terrorists and, inevitably, innocent bystanders, has raised a furor at home and an anti-U.S. backlash abroad.
But even as the White House resists growing demands that it explain whom it decides to target and why, the president's use of armed drones has expanded.
Using nearly invisible drones to spy on and kill people thousands of miles away is new. But unmanned aerial drones are not. In 1849 the Austrians launched balloons loaded with explosives over the city of Venice (the attack backfired when the winds changed and the balloons drifted back over Austrian lines). Over a century ago, American drones were used for WWII target practice. A young woman discovered by a photographer in a Van Nuys, Calif., drone factory in 1944 turned out to be Marilyn Monroe.
Highly sophisticated drones today keep a constant watch over the Korean Peninsula, Iran, Syria, Northern Africa and other hotspots, and are poised to strike at human targets in Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and elsewhere. Both the CIA and the Pentagon maintain separate drone operations; the Pentagon alone operates 61 continuous combat air patrols over foreign soil with drones, a number that will grow to 65 in the coming months.
Col. Tart is currently director of the Air Force Remotely Piloted Aircraft Capabilities Division. A veteran flight commander, he's logged more than 1,600 hours on combat and combat support missions. He holds four graduate degrees and is a distinguished graduate of the U.S. Army War College.
He talked about the skill needed for remote piloting, what it's like to watch a family compound for days and then conduct a strike, the debate about "killer drones," and why a drone doesn't go haywire when it loses the link to its controllers.
He began by reminding us of his crusade to get people to stop calling them "drones," and instead refer to them as Remotely Piloted Aircraft, or RPAs. He likes to demand a $5 fine from people using the word "drone."
So why not call them drones?
You owe me $5!
Ha ha. I meant, why call them RPAs?
The word drone is a negative with respect to the skill and effort that the men and women individually put into flying and executing a mission. A drone, whether you're talking about a drone bee that does no work, or a drone that uses artificial intelligence and does its mission without any human input, is not what we're talking about here.
Well, how hard is it to fly an RPA, anyway? It's like a computer game with a joystick and …
Ah … no. It's an immense mental task to build a three-dimensional picture of your aircraft, over a target or operating with other aircraft, using a camera, using chat and text, using dials and gauges, using both an overhead look and a side view of the world, and integrating all that in your mind.
So the pilot is not only flying the airplane, he or she is using all those sensors to watch a potential target, circling over it for hours or days at a time. What can you really see?
Okay, so in a village in, say, country X, where the houses are built together, there are adults who live in this house, and these children belong to those adults because we see them out in the fields together or we see them eating dinner. So you can start figuring out who is associated with who. Who is a stranger, who is it that's visiting this house? There's a dog and it barks at strangers, so if we needed to go in and free a hostage or conduct a raid, you'd want to tell the land forces there's a dog there and either it's an attack dog or it alerts the village that somebody's coming.
You must develop an emotional tie with the people on the ground that makes it hard if there is going to be a strike or a raid, people are going to be killed.
I would couch it not in terms of an emotional connection, but a … seriousness. I have watched this individual, and regardless of how many children he has, no matter how close his wife is, no matter what they do, that individual fired at Americans or coalition forces, or planted an IED -- did something that met the rules of engagement and the laws of armed conflict, and I am tasked to strike that individual.
The seriousness of it is that I am going to do this and it will affect his family. But that individual is the one that brought it on himself. He became a combatant the minute he took up arms.
Let's say as an RPV pilot you have watched this compound for hours or days and you are confident the target is a bad guy. You can put a laser beam on the target; the missile will home in on that. How does that all work?
Okay. Sitting beside me in the cockpit [at Creech Air Force Base outside Las Vegas, Nev.] is the sensor operator, who takes direction on what target we are going to strike. In the sequence of events, I will say, 'Okay, sensor, I see your crosshairs, and to clarify the aimpoint, put your finger on the place where the laser will be, at the base of that motorcycle, at the corner of the house, five feet in front of that person. Move it up there, okay? That checks, any questions in your mind what we are targeting? Did you copy the ROE [rules of engagement]? I think ground forces are clear, do you see it differently?'
Then I'll read back our clearance to the ground forces and I'll let them know when to expect the impact. We continue to run the checklists together until I call, "Lase the target."
Concentrating on exact weapon placement, the sensor operator keeps the laser spot where it needs to be. Then the pilot who is the "trigger puller," says "Three, two, one, Rifle!" Off comes the weapon. "Okay, sensor, that looks good, keep the cross-hair right there, a little off to the left, good," and all the way to splash or impact. Then the sensor operator and I rapidly assess if we have created the right effect for the guys on the ground.
Why are you watching all the way to "splash," the impact of the weapon?
There's a short time of flight for the weapon, 30-40 seconds, and if anything changes -- a child walks into the picture, your guy goes into a house and you don't know who's in the house -- then you no longer meet the Rules of Engagement. You have the ability, more importantly you have the moral obligation, to move the weapon. And because it's a laser beam rider I can move the weapon.
That's important -- I have a man in the loop all the way to the last couple of seconds. And people take that responsibility very, very seriously. That man or woman, our airmen are in the loop. They understand the rule of engagement, all the nuances, all the laws of armed conflict.
Does that actually happen, that a kid walks into the target area and you make the missile to go somewhere else?
It does. There are a number of cases where that happened and people lived because of that. Not only was it the right thing to do from a legal and moral and ethical standpoint, at the end of the day those are the kinds of actions that send a message to that country that this is not just indiscriminate targeting.
So a drone flying over Afghanistan, say, is actually controlled by you guys sitting thousands of miles away in Nevada. What happens if you lose the link to the aircraft?
I get an indication in the cockpit that says "Loss of data" and the picture freezes.
Well, you know your airplane is stable. It does exactly what it was programmed to do. It remains at the same speed, same altitude, same heading, and at some point, acting on an internal clock, it begins to loiter in the area while it tries to reacquire the link. And if it can't, it proceeds on a pre-programmed route, and it comes back the way it came and holds near to an airfield where a launch and recovery team would attempt to recapture it.
Could it land by itself?
That's something we're looking into.
But you could program it to go out to sea.
And how often does this happen?
It depends on how you define "lost link." If I bank the aircraft as hard as I can to the left, it will lose the link for about half a second, as the satellite tracker tries to stay on the the satellite. So there are probably 10 or 15 of those a month. I think we calculated that during a year we lost the link all the way home approximately seven one-hundredths of a percent of all flying hours.
You must listen to the debate about "killer drones" and the anger about the secret drone wars. What do you make of it?
Look, an RPA is like any other airplane. It is enabled with long loiter capability, and that's really the difference. It has skilled men and women in charge of it, doing a task assigned by their leadership. Period, dot. Once you go beyond that, you start talking about the legality of that assigned task, and that's where the argument really needs to focus.
Since the beginning of time, or the beginning of warfare, man has been trying to put distance between himself and the enemy. The RPA is just another way to look at that. I don't have airmen at risk over top of the enemy, but I have airmen making decisions. That's the best of all worlds right there.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
CORRECTION: After publication, Col. Tart clarified that calculations put "lost link" drones at seven one-hundredths of a percent of all flying hours a year, rather than 7 percent.
WASHINGTON -- The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, said Tuesday he is "cautious" about U.S. military intervention in Syria because of doubts that it would halt the violence or achieve political reconciliation.
He cast doubt on the effectiveness of establishing a no-fly zone, saying that only about 10 percent of the casualties suffered by anti-regime forces are caused by air strikes. He said 90 percent are caused by small arms and artillery, which would be unaffected by a no-fly zone.
Dempsey, an Army officer who is the nation's most senior military commander and chief military adviser to the president, also said the Joint Chiefs have "not yet" been asked to look at options for putting American ground forces inside Syria.
Asked in a meeting with reporters Tuesday about growing agitation in Congress for the United States to intervene in Syria, Dempsey said he was not convinced that military action "would produce the kind of outcome I think that not only members of Congress but all of us would desire, which is an end to the violence, some kind of political reconciliation among the parties, and a stable Syria. That's the reason I've been ... cautious, is the right word, about the application of military power."
"It's not clear to me that it would produce that outcome," Dempsey said. "That said, options are on the table and if it becomes either clear to me or I'm ordered to do so, we will act. But at the moment, that hasn't occurred."
The Obama administration is under growing pressure to act against Syria because of the horrific civilian casualties inflicted by the crumbling regime of President Bashar Assad, now estimated by the United Nations at over 70,000 dead.
In addition, the White House said last week it had some evidence that the deadly nerve agent sarin had been used in Syria. But President Obama, who had earlier said the use of chemical weapons would be a "red line" Assad must not cross, said at a new conference Tuesday that the U.S. is working to confirm the details of the chemical attack before he decides how to respond.
Demands for the United States to establish a "no-fly" zone over Syria are growing, with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) asserting that there is increased support in Congress for some kind of military action.
"You don't need to go deep into Syria to do that," Graham said Sunday on CBS' "Face the Nation."
"If you could neutralize the air advantage the Syrian government has over the rebels, I think you could turn the tide of battle pretty quickly," he said.
Graham and others have pointed to the effectiveness of the no-fly zone that U.S. forces set up over Libya in 2011, an operation that, in conjunction with a "no-drive" zone, crippled the Libyan military and led to the overthrow and death of strongman Muammar Gaddafi that October.
But the idea of a quick, easy and effective no-fly zone over Syria is discounted by Dempsey and other military experts.
Libya's air defenses were two or three decades old and concentrated on Libya's coast and major oil ports. U.S. bombers, cruise missiles and strike fighters took them out and established control of the air within 72 hours.
Syria has five times more air defense weapons, Dempsey said Tuesday. They include state-of-the-art Russian weapons such as the SA-5 Gammon, with a range of 175 miles, and the SA-2 Pantsir-S1, a mobile surface-to-air missile system.
Taking down an integrated, dense air defense system like this would typically require barrages of cruise missiles fired from surface ships or submarines in the Eastern Mediterranean, followed by penetrating strikes by U.S.-based B-2 "stealth" bombers and strike fighters flying with radar-jamming and other specialty attack aircraft.
These attacks would take days and hundreds of cruise missile strikes, many of them in civilian neighborhoods, said Christopher S. Chivvis, a senior analyst at the RAND Corp. and author of a new book on the Libyan war, Toppling Gadaffi.
The massive military operation would put U.S. pilots and air crews inside Syrian air space, some of them assigned to hunt down Syria's mobile missiles. The risk of a downed airman requires a powerful rescue force to be on alert nearby. This would likely be what the Marines call a Sparrowhawk or Bald Eagle force, staged on an amphibious ship off the Syrian coast and poised for a mission called a TRAP, or tactical recovery of aircraft and personnel.
On a typical TRAP mission, Marines in V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft would zoom inland after a downed airman was located. Marine infantry would form a defense perimeter on the ground while the rescue was in effect, as was the case two years ago when an F-15 crew ejected over Libya. Helicopter gunships or strike jets would accompany the Marine TRAP mission until it was safely out of Syrian airspace.
Although Marines practice TRAP missions constantly, it can be a risky operation in hostile territory with the possibility of mechanical breakdowns or interference with local fighters.
Another significant risk with the United States establishing and enforcing a no-fly zone over Syria is that it is essentially an act of war that would likely prompt a hostile Syrian response and could have negative diplomatic repercussions in the region.
"I have to assume that the potential adversary is not going to just sit back and allow us to impose our will on them," Dempsey said Tuesday, suggesting that Syria could make trouble "outside of their borders" by threatening Israel or Turkey, both strong U.S. allies.
The military power and destruction involved in setting up a no-fly zone would likely have damaging repercussions in the region, Chivvis said, noting that the United States fired well over 100 Tomahawk cruise missiles into Libya, far short of what would be required in Syria. "Think how that's going to look in the region, with the civilians killed inadvertently in the process," Chivvis said. Nations that now support efforts to oust Assad, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan and Turkey, could go "wobbly" as the air campaign wore on, the chaos mounted "and it starts looking like a repeat of Iraq," he said.
Dempsey also urged caution on escalation: if a no-fly zone were established and shut down Assad's air forces -- and his army continued to kill and injure civilians and the war continued to escalate -- what then? He speculated that the Pentagon could be "asked to do more," to become more deeply engaged.
"None of these are reasons not to take action," he said. "But they all should be considered before we take that first step."
WASHINGTON -- Despite growing pressure for budget cuts, the Obama administration next week will propose spending $63.5 billion for veterans services in fiscal 2014, asking for a 4 percent increase over current spending.
The money is targeted at eliminating the backlog of veterans claims for benefits and increasing mental health services, including treatment for military sexual trauma. The budget proposal, which will not be officially unveiled until next week, also will make permanent two tax credits to encourage employers to hire veterans.
Since 2009, the overall budget, including mandated programs and discretionary spending, has risen from about $100 billion in 2009 to $140 billion this year, an increase of about 40 percent. The VA's discretionary spending this year is roughly $61 billion.
The backlog in claims has long bedeviled the VA, which currently is working on 854,000 veterans benefits claims, of which 595,000 are overdue. The VA inspector general earlier this year found a veteran who has been waiting more than four years for his paperwork to be finished. Much of the backlog has been caused by the addition of new benefits for which veterans can file claims, including exposure to Agent Orange defoliant during the Vietnam War, and Gulf War syndrome.
But the VA also has been struggling to replace its antiquated paperwork claims process with an automated digital system, which is now installed in 30 of the VA's 56 regional benefits offices. VA Secretary Eric Shinseki told reporters at the White House on Friday that by the end of 2013, the system will be completed. The goal is to eliminate the backlog by 2015, but "the effects of automation are going to begin to show themselves" long before that, he said.
At present, even with much of the system bogged down in paper, VA claims adjusters are completing 1 million claims a year, Shinseki said.
"We're glad to see the increase in the budget," said Paul Reickhoff, chief executive officer of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. But he was highly skeptical of the VA claims that it is making progress on reducing the backlog of veterans claims for benefits. "The customers on the ground, our members, don't see it," he said.
The proposed budget increases for 2014 include nearly $7 billion for mental health services such as treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and providing such service for veterans families. It also includes medical and rehabilitation services for the 50,000 American military personnel wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan.
"We've been at war for 10 years and we have far more complex injuries to deal with," said Shinseki, himself a veteran wounded in the Vietnam War. Taking care of these wounded veterans, he said, "is going to go on for years."
Shinseki turned aside a question about what the White House Office of Management and Budget, which has approval authority over agency budget requests, had rejected out of his budget proposals."You could always use more money," he said. But he added that President Obama has been a strong advocate for veterans, and his budget requests have increased every year.
White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough acknowledged that the battle with Congress over spending and taxes "is forcing a lot of very difficult choices." But he said spending on veterans "is at the top of our list." He did not rule out, however, the possibility that the OMB had pruned back the budget requests from the VA.
"It wouldn't surprise me if this was not the first time in the history of the OMB process that there was wrestling over the ultimate number," McDonough said. "But we feel good about the investments we've made in veterans and their families over the course of five years," he continued, singling out the VA's new automated claims processing system.
He said of Obama, "There is nobody more impatient than the guy we're reporting to."
BARKSDALE AIR FORCE BASE, La. -- Nobody knew with certainty how North Korea would react when President Obama recently ordered nuclear-capable B-52 bombers of the Air Force Global Strike Command here to thunder over the Korean peninsula in simulated bombing attacks.
North Korea's young dictator, Kim Jong Un, gathered his generals around war maps and unleashed fusillades of fiery rhetoric, threatening to use his newly tested nuclear weapons against the West. After Obama upped the ante by deploying B-2 "Stealth" bombers, which can carry 20 tons of thermonuclear weapons, Kim escalated further by declaring "a state of war." Within days, however, the crisis seemed to subside, though few believed the confrontation was over.
But as Obama and Kim struggled to read each other's intentions and determination -- groping through unknowns to guess how far the other was willing to go -- it was clear that the world has entered a dangerous new era in which the old rules of nuclear gamesmanship no longer apply, senior U.S. officials and other experts say.
In this new nuclear weapons age, "no circuit breaker exists in the path to nuclear war," says Yale University strategist and Pentagon consultant Paul Bracken.
Across the world's most unstable regions, small powers such as North Korea, Israel, Pakistan and India are amassing nuclear warfighting capabilities. Iran, despite threats by the United States and Israel, may eventually join this club. So, too, may terrorists.
Managing conflict among the growing number of nuclear-armed adversaries "is becoming much more complex," said Air Force Lt. Gen. James M. Kowalski, who as commander of Global Strike Command controls nuclear-attack bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles.
As nuclear crisis management shifts from a two-player Cold War problem to three-dimensional chess, maintaining stability "doesn't just grow sequentially, it becomes exponentially much more difficult," Kowalski said in an interview here at Barksdale Air Force Base.
In a new book, The Second Nuclear Age, Bracken argues that the United States should spend less effort on the noble but failing goal to halt the spread of nuclear weapons, and turn its attention to mastering the unique dynamics of the new nuclear age and how to manage it safely.
"Atomic weapons have returned for a second act," Bracken writes. "Few people have thought about how atomic weapons reshape the strategic rivalries in the world's most contested regions."
Until now, the U.S. strategic nuclear force and the principles that guide it were largely fashioned during the Cold War confrontation with the Soviet Union. But today's tensions between India and Pakistan, in the Middle East and in the volatile region encompassed by China, Japan and the Koreas, are quite different.
In some cases, short distances -- four-minute missile flight time between India and Pakistan, shorter still between North and South Korea -- mean nuclear detonations can occur with virtually no warning. That gives leaders fearing attack strong incentive to launch early in a crisis to avoid catastrophic loss. It also raises the value of delegating nuclear launch authority to lower-ranking officials in case command headquarters is destroyed in a first strike. With crisis decision-making compressed into minutes, there is greater likelihood of fatal misjudgments.
North Korea's leaders likely feel immense pressure to resort to nuclear weapons in a use-it-or-lose-it crisis, with U.S. conventional and nuclear-capable aircraft and missiles poised nearby. North Korea has foregone investment in its massive ground forces in order to focus resources on building its nuclear arsenal. As a result, experts say, if pressed in a conflict, North Korea may feel it has to go nuclear to stave off total defeat.
Israel, which has long had an unacknowledged nuclear weapons arsenal, is reported to be deploying submarines capable of launching nuclear-tipped missiles. That's a step others, including India and China, are taking to ensure that if their ground-based missiles are destroyed in a first strike, a nuclear retaliation is still possible. Ordering these subs out to submerge at sea can also be used as a signal to adversaries that serious preparations for nuclear war have begun, a significant and dangerous step in crisis escalation.
India and Pakistan offer an example of the pressures that exist in new nuclear age. The two nations, which already have fought four wars and numerous border clashes and terrorist attacks, now confront each other with bristling nuclear arsenals. India far outweighs Pakistan in population, wealth and the size and capability of its military.
Pakistan, outgunned on the ground, has more nukes: it is the fast-growing nuclear power on earth, having doubled its nuclear arsenal to perhaps 200 warheads in the past few years, according to retired senior CIA official Bruce Riedel. Riedel is the author of a new book on the India-Pakistan nuclear confrontation, titled, Avoiding Armageddon: America, India, and Pakistan to the Brink and Back.
India boasts nuclear-armed bombers as well as ground-launched missiles that can target as far as Beijing, and a submarine designed to fire multi-warhead nuclear missiles. The country has also publicly adopted a military strategy called "Cold Start," designed for surprise attack.
Such inherently unstable situations make intervention risky for the United States as well.
As a crisis escalates into fighting, a nuclear power like Pakistan might mistake an attack on its airfields or infantry formations as an all-out assault on its prized nuclear arsenal. Attacks on a nation's air defenses -- in a U.S. or NATO operation to establish a no-fly zone, for instance -- might inadvertently damage that country's nuclear command and control system. In both cases, the nation under attack would have the incentive, in the chaos of crisis, to launch its nuclear weapons in self defense.
"Does the application of how we normally do business make an adversary more likely either to use nuclear weapons or delegate authority for use down in case they lose command and control [links]? These are all things we need to be thinking about in more detail," Kowalski said. Such thinking is being done, he added, at senior levels at the U.S. Strategic Command, the joint headquarters that conducts strategic planning and operations.
Unfortunately, the record of leaders responding to sudden existential threats is not a good one. Even in the United States, with arguably the world's most sophisticated crisis alert system, the 9/11 terrorist attacks created chaos in the White House situation room. Then-President George W. Bush couldn't reach the secretary of defense; the military got word of the first hijacking nine minutes before the plane struck the World Trade Center, and got no advanced warning of the second, third or fourth hijacked aircraft. Fighters were scrambled and vectored out over the ocean, 150 miles away when the Pentagon was hit, according to the 9/11 Commission report.
Apart from the obvious global risks of even a "small" nuclear exchange, the possibility also threatens deployed U.S. military forces. A Pentagon report released two years ago concluded that military forces are not sufficiently protected from the effects of nuclear weapons, that their "survivability, effectiveness and adaptation to Nuclear Weapons Effects is at best unknown," and that accomplishing the mission would require "luck and ingenuity" and would involve "an unnecessarily high human cost." The military's lack of expertise in planning for nuclear war, the report said, is "a serious and potentially show-stopping issue."
A recent report by the Army War College Center for Strategic Leadership titled, "In The Dark: Military Planning for a Catastrophic Critical Infrastructure Event" noted that expertise in managing nuclear forces has suffered from "15 years of neglect by senior leadership."
One reason that the big issues of strategic nuclear deterrence theory and nuclear crisis-management practice have attracted so few new theorists and thinkers is the long-standing official policy of the United States: that no new nuclear powers beyond the "Big Five" (the U.S., Russia, China, United Kingdom and France) should be allowed. The Bush administration cited this line in calling for the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 based on the now-disproved claim of weapons of mass destruction, and the policy continues to be the foundation for severe international sanctions against North Korea and Iran.
As Obama declared in Israel last month, "I’ve made the position of the United States of America clear: Iran must not get a nuclear weapon. This is not a danger that can be contained, and as president, I’ve said all options are on the table for achieving our objectives. America will do what we must to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran."
With that policy of prevention in place, there is less incentive within the government or academia to plan for an Iran with nuclear weapons, to brainstorm new strategies to prevent crises from escalating toward a nuclear exchange, or to devise new ways to contain provocative impulses.
Yet the issues are pressing. Leaders like North Korea's Kim Jong Un, who are suddenly wielding immense destructive power, no longer have the luxury of time that Kennedy and Khrushchev had to fumble their way through the Cuban missile crisis.
After a few of these hair-raising crises early in the Cold War, Washington and Moscow figured out ways to manage their ideological competition without getting sucked into a spiral of uncontrolled escalation.
No such procedures exist today between nuclear adversaries. U.S. Army Gen. Walter L. Sharp, the four-star commander of U.S. and allied forces in South Korea until he retired in 2011, confirmed to The Huffington Post that there is no back-channel communications link, for example, that would enable senior U.S. and North Korean leaders to talk in a crisis (North Korea has disconnected the hotline that until recently connected military representatives across the Demilitarized Zone).
"What we all worry about," Sharp said in late March as the Korea crisis reached a boil, "is how do you control escalation when you get into this situation?"
Since his book was published last fall, Bracken has received a quiet but steady stream of visitors, some in uniform, who want to talk about his ideas for managing the new nuclear era. But overall, Bracken told The Huffington Post, "new thinking about all this is not taking place with the energy it should."
BARKSDALE AIR FORCE BASE, La. -- From the aircraft commander's seat of a nuclear attack-capable B-52 bomber known as Lucky 13, Lt. Col. Eric Sikes sees trouble.
Thanks to political gridlock in Washington D.C., unplanned and indiscriminate across-the-board budget cuts caused by congressional sequestration have hit the bomber pilots and crews in Sikes' squadron. For a month now, they've been flying one-third less missions than they need to maintain the skills to fly B-52s with precision.
Those missions are critical. When President Barack Obama tells Iran or North Korea that "all options are on the table" to force a halt to their nuclear weapons programs, he means that airplanes like Lucky 13 are ready to attack with conventional or nuclear weapons. When the president orders B-52s to fly to South Korea in a show of force against North Korea, as he did in mid-March, the bombers and crews have to be razor-sharp ready.
The "sequester" cuts have generated gales of political bluster in Washington. But here and at countless other military installations, they have hit hard, with real consequences.
"If the president needs 100 percent of all his (B-52) crew members, he will not have them," said Sikes, who commands the 20th Bomb Squadron.
"This is a real-world impact" of what happens in Washington, he added. "I was surprised at how fast we got hit."
He is quick to add, "The president can be reassured -- nuclear deterrence will still happen, conventional operations will still happen, expeditionary operations will still happen -- but with a reduced number of assets. Morale is going to take a hit. But we are professionals. We'll keep our combat edge as sharp as we can."
Until now, it's been difficult to measure the consequences of the cuts in defense spending: $41 billion whacked out of the budget between now and Sept. 30, with more than half, $22 billion, to come out of accounts that pay for operations and maintenance, according to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
The "real-world" consequence: with reduced flying time, Sikes' pilots can't all practice in-flight refueling, the trickiest, most delicate and dangerous part of long-distance missions.
It takes cool nerves to close the distance between a lumbering, bomb-laden B-52 and a gas-heavy jet tanker to within spitting distance, and to hold it steady through nighttime turbulence without colliding or causing the probe to yank out and spray fuel over hot engines. And it take plenty of practice.
Without it, some crews will either be grounded in a crisis -- or will fly with increased risk.
"This can't be learned in a simulator," Sikes said. You have to take the jet up and move it around, feel it with your fingertips, react quickly to the unforeseen, encounter what he calls "the fog and friction of war."
The budget cuts have forced Sikes and other commanders to cut training missions from six hours back to four. Six hours was barely enough time to get a B-52 airborne, practice offensive and defensive maneuvers, get to a bomb range, practice the complex procedures of precision bombing, meet up with a tanker to refuel, and return home. Four hour max means less training.
Worse, because of budget cuts elsewhere, there are fewer airborne tankers to train with. Officers in charge of training here say they're trying to manage with two-thirds less time available to rendezvous with a tanker over the western United States. That means that some new pilots are taking longer to get trained, and that others are being assigned to operational squadrons without the requisite training in aerial refueling and other skills.
"They send guys over to us with a waiver" indicating they haven't yet checked out on some skills, said Capt. Matt Munska of the 20th Bomb Squadron. "Now I have new guys who are not mission capable. And with our reduced hours it's hard to get them tanker training." By shuffling things around, he said "I can make it for a little while. But we will have more and more guys without proficiency."
For the aircraft technicians and wrench-turners who keep the B-52s flying into their sixth decade of service (the newest B-52 rolled off the assembly line in 1962), the budget cuts have been a relief, at least in the short term. Grounded airplanes mean more time for maintenance. "We have more time to fix minor discrepancies, like burned-out light bulbs or missing panels," said Staff Sgt. Brad Bowen, chew chief for a B-52 named Big Stick.
But the budget cuts will be felt more heavily as the fiscal year staggers toward a close at the end of September. Sikes is expecting his squadron's flying hours to be cut again this summer, to about half of what he could fly last year. His solution is to keep as many of his pilots as he can fully trained and ready. The rest, he said, will have to get by with training in the B-52 simulator and classroom work.
"Getting up into the air, dealing with the fog and friction of war, just isn't going to be there," he said.
From a higher altitude, the problem looks even more severe. Lt. Gen. James M. Kowalski is commander of Global Strike Command, the Air Force headquarters that oversees the nation's nuclear and conventional bomber and missile attack force. In an interview, Kowalski said budget cuts scheduled to take place over the next eight years will make today's problems look minor, because the effects are cumulative.
"We're going out and getting a payday loan, so that everything from now to the end of this year will seem like it's okay," he said, referring to the practice of borrowing for today's expenses from your next paycheck.
Some pilots are being sidelined and some civilians furloughed, Kowalski said. "But a lot of the payback on doing business this way is going to happen next year, because next year we're going to be taking about a 10 percent cut at the same time we're paying back for this year." Pilots who are not qualified this year will be stacked up to get qualified next year along with incoming new pilots, and maintenance that's being deferred this year will be added to next year's scheduled maintenance burden.
"And there's going to be eight years of this!" Kowalski said. The accumulation of under-trained pilots and growing maintenance backlogs will collide with pressing demands to modernize the aging force. For instance, different weapons will be needed to replace the current Cold War force in order to hold at risk new nuclear powers like North Korea.
Kowalski said that as he travels around the bomber bases and missile launch facilities that are under his command, he strives to remind his troops that the job they're doing is vital, even if troops in Afghanistan and daring Special Forces raids get more attention.
But with shrinking training opportunities, aging weapons systems and furloughed employees, "We are going to be in uncharted territory," Kowalski said. "It's not clear to me what kind of morale issues we're going to have long-term."
Nightfall and still over 100 degrees as the gun trucks of a U.S. military convoy known as Dagger Three Seven growl in S-turns past the concrete barriers and blast walls and concertina razor wire that guard the back gate of Camp Anaconda, lurching out onto a pitted two-lane road known for violence and death.
Balad, Republic of Iraq, July 2007.
Headlights bore into the deepening haze of gray, dust and smoke. Inside the lead gun truck, an up-armored Humvee, sweat soaks through layers of body armor, trickling from under helmets, darkening the seats. Nerves taut. Up in the turret, the gunner -- anonymous behind night-vision goggles, scarf and helmet -- swivels behind his .50-cal. It will be a long mission, 16 or 20 hours of unrelenting danger. More than 7,400 miles from home and months left on this deployment.
The soldiers of Dagger Three Seven are riding sentry on a snaking line of freight trucks, the lifeblood of the U.S. military presence. They're outside the wire on convoys like this every day and a half, in between savoring a few precious daylight hours for exhausted sleep or computer time with family.
The Dagger Three Seven crew left this evening after a brief prayer ("Blessed be the Lord, our mighty fortress"). Alert, serious, professional, and fortified with adrenaline and Monster Energy Drink, they are getting the mission done. They have come to a distant place in the hope of making it better -- enhanced security, maybe some democracy. Dagger Three Seven mostly is hoping to avoid the sudden flash of light, the crushing blast wave of dirt and shrapnel, the heaving wreckage, that would announce the detonation of an improvised explosive device.
On this road, one of those things happens that changes nothing about the war but changes a life forever. A gun truck headed home at dusk after a convoy that stretched through a day and night and on into another day. Crew exhausted, nerves shot. Suddenly a young girl is standing in the roadway, facing the oncoming convoy. The gunner, Sgt. Jamie Beavers, cries out in alarm. Inexplicably, the girl stands as if transfixed. Just before impact, her eyes meet his. She is the age of his own daughter back home. Perhaps a brief flash of recognition. Then: bump-bump.
The war in Iraq was launched March 20, 2003, in Baghdad and unexpectedly stretched on for 106 months, just short of nine years. During that time, 1,111,610 Americans served there for a total of 2,337,197 deployments, with some serving two or more times.
Four thousand, four hundred and eighty-eight of them came home in flag-draped coffins, including 110 women, according to Defense Department data. Thirty-two thousand, two hundred and twenty-one were brought home with serious combat wounds ranging from concussions to multiple limb amputations. Two hundred and thirty-five took their own lives while deployed.
In Iraq, 115,376 Iraq civilians were killed between 2003 and 2011 as sectarian fighting intensified, according to the Brookings Institution's Iraq Index, while the number of internally displaced Iraqi civilians rose from 400,000 in 2003 to 2.7 million by 2010.
Many of the Americans who fought in Iraq returned strengthened, with newfound confidence, deep friendships and pride of service. Others have returned with mental scars, diagnosed or not. Surveys by the Army Office of the Surgeon General found in 2006 that 18.6 percent of troops deployed in Iraq suffered "acute stress."
In contrast to past conflicts, where soldiers could retreat to "safe" areas in the rear, the survey found that in 2006, more than two-thirds of the U.S. troops in Iraq had been attacked and had received small-arms fire, 65 percent had seen dead bodies and 72 percent knew someone who had been killed or seriously injured. Eighty-eight percent had experienced incoming artillery or mortar fire, and 45 percent had shot at the enemy. Half had felt an IED explode nearby. Sixty percent reported having a member of their unit become a casualty.
Jamie Beavers, now 33, did two tours in Iraq, suffered several IED blasts, and came home with traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as an addiction to the drugs for pain and insomnia he was prescribed in Iraq. He's now off drugs and thinking about going back to college.
Such repeated deployments were taking their toll by 2005.
The Army determined that in order to fully recover from a year-long deployment, a soldier should be at home for at least 30 months and preferably 36 months. But many troops had barely 18 months at home and many far less than that before being re-deployed.
At Fort Drum, N.Y., home of the constantly deploying 10th Mountain Division, mid-career sergeants in their 30s told me they were doing without a permanent home and avoiding long-term relationships; they hot-bunked rented apartments with rental furniture, so that whoever was between deployments would get the apartment and then deploy just as his buddy was returning.
Among troops in Iraq, the divorce rate inched up from 12.4 percent in 2003 to 17.4 percent in 2004, and then to 22 percent in 2009, according to the Army surgeon general's report. There were 669 reported cases of sexual assault among troops in Iraq between 2007 and 2011, according to the Pentagon's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office -- but the number reported is believed to be about 13 percent of the actual total.
Inside the Army as a whole, the war years propelled a jump in violent crime, sexual assaults, drug abuse and increases in desertions and AWOLs. According to a massive 2012 Army study, violent sex crimes in the Army jumped over 90 percent between 2006 and 2011; violent felonies in general leaped 31 percent during the same time period.
By 2010, more than 13,000 soldiers were judged unable to deploy by the Army due to illness, minor injury, or legal problems, Army officials said. Last year, 17,000 active-duty soldiers were under arrest, in military prisons or under investigation, according to the Army report.
Back home, stress on families was real but hard to measure except indirectly -- despite enormous challenges, military families did not "break," as some experts had feared. Instead, they drew on reserves of resiliency and on each other. "It can be a tough life," an Army wife wrote me recently, "but there are many things about it that make it worth it."
A 2011 RAND study of 1,500 11- to 17-year-olds in military families and caregivers reported high levels of stress and behavioral difficulty; 45 percent of the kids said people in their community didn't understand "what a deployment is like." In a 2007 study of 107 military adolescents, Angela Huebner of Virginia Tech University found that responses to having a parent deployed ranged from increased anxiety to pride to rage. "They took my Dad away from me," one teenager said, and several complained of being "stuck" with additional household chores.
The families of the war wounded have faced unique challenges. Staff Sgt. Bryan Gansner of the 101st Airborne was blown up in Iraq in 2006 and his wife, Cheryl, then 24, rushed to meet him at the old Walter Reed Army hospital in Washington, D.C. She was swiftly introduced into the world of bed pans, needles, surgeries, pain and depression. Her nightmares started almost immediately.
After a few weeks in intensive care, reality started to sink in: Bryan's wounding in Iraq had irrevocably altered their future, Cheryl told me. As she described it, the happy life they'd known was over. They would have to sell their house outside Fort Campbell, Ky. They'd lose contact with Bryan's combat buddies and their Army friends back home. As they sat together on a bed in Army housing at Walter Reed, Bryan started sobbing. He told Cheryl he didn't want to be there any more, that he didn't want to be hurt, that he was sorry for putting her through this. As she held him, he admitted he didn't want to live any longer.
"I was the most scared I had been in my life," Cheryl wrote later. "I knew he had beat the odds and survived the blast, but I knew at this point he would struggle for the rest of his life. The outcome probably wouldn't be what we had expected. We knew at that point he would always be in physical and emotional pain."
Brett Litz, a clinical psychologist for the Boston VA Healthcare System and a professor at Boston University, said those who return from war can be haunted for the rest of their lives by their experiences, by "the dark things they think about the world."
"You can't have these long wars -- especially for the subset who have multiple deployments; there's going to be impact," he said. But Litz noted some mental injuries can be healed by a welcoming culture, by loving families, by having a fulfilling job. "These are corrective," he said, "but it takes time."
Cheryl and Bryan Gansner are an attractive and engaging couple, and now seem upbeat despite their struggles with difficult health issues. They're expecting their first baby in September after years of recovery, transition and dreams of starting their own family.
On her blog, Cheryl recently wrote: "I do have to say that I am closer to my husband than I have ever been because of this struggle. I have realized which friends care and which don’t. I feel like a dark black cloud is no longer raining on my head. ... I am planning some really wonderful things for this year."
WASHINGTON -- In nine years of war in Iraq, 4,448 Americans died and 32,221 were wounded in battle, leaving behind a deeply divided country steeped in corruption. And despite a $60 billion U.S effort to rebuild Iraq, life for most Iraqis has not improved significantly, according to a bitter and regretful retrospective by Iraqi officials and U.S. diplomats, military officers and politicians.
Their views come with the final report of the Special U.S. Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, released Wednesday. Congress set up the SIGIR office in November of 2003 to monitor the vast sums of Iraqi and U.S. money being spent by the U.S. occupation authorities in Baghdad.
Over nine years, Inspector General Stuart W. Bowen and his staff relentlessly tracked down what happened to the $146 billion in Iraqi money and the $60 billion in U.S. funds -- much of it airlifted to Iraq in pallets of shrink-wrapped $50 bills. Despite the claims of President George W. Bush and other U.S. officials that the United States would rebuild an even better Iraq after the March 2003 invasion and occupation, the money "underperformed," Bowen noted dryly in the report.
"There was misspending of money," said Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, in one of the colossal understatements contained in the massive report.
The one bright spot, the report said, was the $20.2 billion the United States spent to train and equip Iraqi security forces, which have managed to keep Iraq relatively stable despite rising political tensions and sectarian violence.
But apart from the detailed investigations and assessments in the final SIGIR report, it is the observations of senior Iraqi and American officials that are most damning. Bowen and his staff talked with Maliki and Iraqi politicians and jurists, former Ambassador Ryan Crocker, former Gen. David Petraeus and Gen. Ray Odierno, now U.S. army chief of staff.
Bush, former Vice President Dick Cheney, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and L. Paul Bremer -- who ran Iraq in the crucial years of 2003 and 2004 as head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) -- did not offer their own assessments.
There is little chance that the United States, given the difficult lessons of its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, will embark on a major invasion and military occupation any time soon. But if it did, the ineptness and hubris of the U.S.-led reconstruction effort will serve as a guide to how it shouldn't be done.
"The level of fraud, waste and abuse in Iraq was appalling," Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) told SIGIR. She said she had urged the White House to make careful loans to Iraq for reconstruction, but Bush had insisted on a "no strings attached" approach instead.
A senior Iraqi bank auditor, Dr. Abdul Basit Turki al-Sae'ed, who has led many investigations of Iraqi government spending, said the flood of U.S. dollars into the country had fostered a "triangle of political patronage" among Iraq's political parties, sectarian groups and government officials that sparked corruption and terrorism.
Former Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'afari said Iraq's oil profits, which in 2003 and 2004 were spent by Bremer's CPA, were "gravely mismanaged," eroding the country's educational and medical facilities and sapping its ability to provide such basics as electricity.
U.S. Army Chief of Staff Odierno, who commanded in Iraq for six of the war's nine years, said in retrospect it would have been better to have held off major U.S. investments in reconstruction projects until five or six years into the war, when U.S. troops and U.S.-trained and equipped Iraqi forces were beginning to bring the violence under control.
In 2004, for instance, the U.S. launched an ambitious project to build a sewer and water system in Fallujah, a center of intense and bloody sectarian fighting. Originally slated to cost $35 million and take 18 months to complete, the project so far has cost $195 million and is scheduled to be finished in 2014.
Raheem al-Ugaili, a judge and head of Iraq's Commission on Public Integrity until 2011, pursued dozens of corruption investigations involving U.S.-funded projects until he was fired for reaching too deeply into Iraq's political elite.
"Vast amounts of money were wasted without attaining actual intended results," al-Ugaili told SIGIR. He identified one major problem common to U.S. reconstruction efforts: Americans excluded Iraqis from the planning and prioritizing of projects.
But worse than simply wasted money and incomplete projects was the culture of corruption left behind. "Sketching out a grim picture of Iraq's anti-corruption institutions in full retreat, the judge asserted that the level of kickbacks to [Iraq government] officials and the volume of money laundering continue to grow," SIGIR reports.
That culture has seeped into the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan as well, according to Ryan Crocker, who served as ambassador to Afghanistan from 2011 to 2012 after leading the political-military campaign in Iraq from 2007 to 2009 with Petraeus. Corruption, cost over-runs and unfinished construction of U.S.-funded projects in Afghanistan are documented in regular reports from the U.S. Special Inspector General For Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR), also a congressionally mandated watchdog.
Crocker told SIGAR that the United States had done a better job in Afghanistan in including local Afghans in the planning process. But as in Iraq, he said, the United States had launched ambitious projects for which Afghans had neither the expertise nor the money to operate.
For instance, he said Afghanistan lacks the money to maintain the new road system built with reconstruction funds.
"We're already seeing them crumbling," he said.
WASHINGTON -- After a CIA Predator drone released its guided bomb high over Yemen on Nov. 3, 2002, the resulting explosion did more than kill six suspected al Qaeda terrorists riding in the targeted car.
This strike, the first by an armed drone outside a traditional, recognized war zone, also blew apart long-held notions of "war" and "battlefield" which had guided the application of the legal traditions, treaties and laws of armed conflict for centuries.
Until that day, armed drones had been used only in Afghanistan, easily identifiable as a traditional battlefield or war zone because it had supported al Qaeda's 9/11 plotters and the U.S. armed response was justifiable self-defense. Any casual observer could see a war was underway.
Yemen was different. The White House was not sending tens of thousands of troops, and there was no solemn Oval Office speech summoning the nation to battle there. However, though few knew it at the time, earlier that year Yemen had been officially designated as a "combat zone" making the killings legal, at least in the eyes of the CIA and the White House of George W. Bush.
But ever since that first "non-battlefield" drone strike, generals and legal scholars, pundits and politicians have argued passionately about what, exactly, constitutes an armed conflict, or a war zone, or a battlefield, and what is outside armed conflict.
The distinction matters. "Inside an armed conflict, you are allowed to kill people without warning. Outside, you are not," says Notre Dame law professor Mary Ellen O'Connell, a specialist in international laws of war and conflict. "That makes it pretty important to know whether you're on a battlefield or not."
And not just if you're standing on a battlefield. As difficult as it is to pin down the law of armed conflict, "it's really important to raise these questions, because we've been lulled since 9/11 into the sense that our government has the ability to decide through its intelligence agencies who is a bad guy and to kill him and the people around him," O'Connell told The Huffington Post. "I don't want to see them drag the law down and lose the world as a place in which the law is held as a high standard."
Difficult questions about international law are boiling up because of the Obama administration's accelerating use of armed drones against what it says are suspected terrorists in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, and potentially elsewhere as well.
In his State of the Union address Tuesday, President Obama seemingly acknowledged the growing public unease about the program's troubling secrecy and whether the strikes are justified and legal. He would, he promised, be "even more transparent" about how the strikes comply with the law.
That vague wording promises that the bitter disagreements over what the law says, and how it applies, are only going to get more heated.
"I don't think we are ever going to have a precise answer," says Laurie R. Blank, director of the International Humanitarian Law Center at Emory University School of Law and the author of several books on war and international law. In the long history of warfare, there have been clear-cut cases where existing law applies, mostly when two governments are at war in a geographically defined area.
"But the nature of the world today is that it makes it difficult to put war into neat and tidy packages," Blank says.
War and the law have come a long way from that muddy day in October almost 600 years ago when British infantry and archers memorably clashed with French knights near the Normandy village of Maisoncelles. It was a modest, neatly-defined battle, or armed conflict: the belligerents were drawn up at either end of a small wheat field; the bristling battle lines were barely 1,000 yards apart, and when the carnage was over in a few hours, a pair of professional referees declared British King Henry V the winner and named the battle Agincourt, after a nearby castle.
By contrast, many of today's conflicts range over time and space, and belligerents morph from terrorist to civilian to warrior. Do a few suicide bombings in Islamabad define a war zone? Does the taking of hostages at an Algerian gas plant constitute an international armed conflict? Does a skyjacking plot conceived in Afghanistan and planned in Germany, which kills 3,000 people in New York and Washington, create legal war zones or armed conflicts in all four places? What if one of the plotters is hiding in Cleveland?
How far does the concept of self-defense go? Can someone just declare an area to be a free-fire "battlefield"? If the United States is at war with terrorists, and there are terrorists inside the United States, can they be targeted with armed drones? If a Taliban sneaks across the Afghan border with Iran, can the U.S. target him there? And is Iran then justified under the U.N. rule of self defense to plant a terrorist bomb in Times Square?
Could an al Qaeda terrorist protect himself by becoming an American citizen?
These are among the questions that remain for the Obama White House to clear up. But there are no simple answers.
The administration has argued, for instance, that in some places like Paris, or Cleveland, the police can handle an al Qaeda suspect as a matter of law enforcement. But when a terrorist is operating in a place like Yemen, where the government "is unable or unwilling to suppress the threat," the president has the authority to order a strike, according to the Department of Justice white paper on the legal basis for drone attacks, which surfaced last week.
That explanation -- that killing is okay in a "weak" state -- hardly quieted the debate on Capitol Hill.
If geography doesn't settle the matter of what is an armed conflict, what does? The International Committee of the Red Cross, the independent, neutral organization which oversees the 1949 Geneva Conventions and associated international humanitarian law, recognizes two types of armed conflict: international conflict, between two nations, and "non-international conflict," involving a state and an armed group, or two armed groups -- basically everything else but international conflict.
According to the ICRC, to qualify as a non-international armed conflict, the fighting must be protracted and intense. As it is, for example, in Afghanistan.
Given that the fighting between the United States and anyone in Yemen is neither protracted nor intense -- but rather consists of sporadic drone attacks and other targeted killings -- it would seem that the U.S. drone attacks in Yemen do not qualify and thus are illegal.
That's the argument advanced by O'Connell, and it was noted and abruptly dismissed by the Obama lawyers who wrote the white paper. Their argument was not that the fighting was protracted and intense. They argued that the law doesn't apply.
"There is little judicial or other authoritative precedent that speaks directly to the question of the geographic scope of a non-international armed conflict in which one of the parties is a transnational, non-state actor and where the principal theater of operations is not within the territory of the nation that is a party to the conflict," the anonymous authors of the white paper wrote.
This back-and-forth argument, about whether a conflict can be defined by its battle space or intensity, is irrelevant, says Geoffrey Corn, a career Army officer who served as the senior Army advisor on the law of war. A conflict ought to be defined by the threat, he told The Huffington Post.
"Trying to define the military hot zone is inconsistent with military logic, with the history of warfare and inconsistent with the laws of armed conflict," said Corn, who teaches at South Texas College of Law, in Houston. "Plus, it invests your opponent with the perverse incentive to conduct operations from some place not involved in the struggle, in order to gain immunity." In other words, to skip across the border into sanctuary.
According to Corn, the idea of a geographical battle zone was dismissed in 1982, when the Argentine cruiser Belgrano was sunk by British forces during the Falklands War. While the Argentines claimed the attack was a war crime because the cruiser was not in the Falklands exclusion zone and had in fact turned away from the British fleet, London asserted it was legal because once Britain and Argentina engaged in hostilities, any target was fair game, no matter where.
Needless to say, legal scholars and others are still bitterly arguing over the Belgrano case.
History aside, Corn says the issue is that the current nature of U.S. conflicts is unprecedented. "The problem is that we've never really dealt with this issue of transnational armed conflicts, such as what we're engaged in now," he says, "and it definitely raises troubling questions, like how do we decide who the enemy is, and does the law allow you to go into somebody else's territory and kill him?"
WASHINGTON -- With an arsenal that could rain down hundreds of devastating nuclear warheads on North Korea, the United States can afford to react calmly to North Korea's testing of a nuclear device on Tuesday -- and perhaps even proceed with nuclear reductions talks, a top arms expert said.
President Obama, who has long favored deep cuts in nuclear weapons with the eventual goal of global nuclear disarmament, has new plans to push for an agreement with Russia on further cuts to strategic nuclear weapons stores. Obama is reportedly weighing the decision to announce this renewed effort during Tuesday evening's State of the Union, a decision complicated by the North Korean nuclear test.
The U.S. maintains an arsenal of 1,950 nuclear warheads for its intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched missiles and bombers; Russia maintains about 1,750. Under the current, so-called New START Treaty -- signed with Russia in 2010 -- those stockpiles are to be reduced to 1,550 on each side.
Under consideration by the Obama administration, however, are deeper cuts -- perhaps eventually to 1,000 on each side, officials have said, a number judged to be sufficient to maintain deterrence.
The North Korean nuclear test could explode that plan, however, with some in Congress already warning against any further nuclear cuts. In a statement Tuesday, Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, called it "unfortunate" that "on the same day the President of the United States plans to announce further reductions in U.S. nuclear weapons, we see another hostile regime unimpressed by his example."
And Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called for the White House to "replace its failed North Korea policy with one that is energetic, creative and focused on crippling the Kim regime’s military capabilities through stringent sanctions that tackle its illicit activities and cuts off its flow of hard currency." Otherwise, Royce said in a statement Tuesday, "the grave North Korean threat to the region and the United States will only grow.”
But others said this is precisely the moment to talk nuclear arms reductions. Steven Pifer, a former ambassador and senior arms control official, said that while rhetoric and sanctions would have limited effect on North Korea, a new U.S. arms reductions initiative would provide diplomatic cover for others -- specifically China -- to join new international pressure on Pyongyang.
Pifer, director of the arms control initiative at the Brookings Institution, acknowledged that North Korea's nuclear test, coupled with its successful test-launch of a long-range ballistic missile last December, will drive calls for strengthening the U.S. nuclear deterrent force, not reducing it.
But he noted that, "if we cut our nuclear arsenal in half," the U.S. would still have roughly 300 times as many weapons as North Korea.
A new U.S. arms reductions initiative, Pifer told The Huffington Post, "wouldn't have that much impact directly on North Korea -- but it would make it easier for third countries to pressure North Korea, easier for them to argue that North Korea is going in the wrong direction." He said U.S. steps toward arms reductions, including the 2010 New START agreement with Russia, had been instrumental in persuading Europeans and others to join sanctions against Iran's nuclear weapons program.
In the long and so far unsuccessful international effort to stop North Korea's nuclear weapons program, China has been reluctant to approve sanctions or take other harsh measures against its client state. North Korea, whose economy has been shrinking steadily for decades, is desperately dependent on China for essentials such as food and fuel.
But there are signs that even the Chinese are fed up with the North Korean regime. In a sharply worded statement Tuesday, China said it was "strongly dissatisfied and resolutely opposed" to Pyongyang's behavior, reminded North Korea of its legal obligation "to abide by its non-nuclear commitment," and warned it against "taking any further actions that would worsen the situation."
Earlier, China had threatened to impose santions on North Korea if it went ahead with the nuclear test, possibly even reducing oil shipments to the North.
The U.N. Security Council meets Tuesday to consider what action to take in response to the nuclear test, including possible new economic sanctions. But it was not clear what additional sanctions or other steps the Security Council could agree on that haven't already been taken, with little apparent effect -- without the energetic cooperation of China.
Under the New START Treaty signed with Russia in April, 2010, the two sides agreed to reduce their deployed nuclear weapons, which make up about 30 percent of each side's stockpile. Tactical warheads and those held in reserve storage are not included. In 2018, when the treaty is scheduled to be fully implemented, each side will still retain about 5,000 total warheads.
It is that residual stockpile that the Obama administration is seeking to reduce, in agreement with Russia.
Clarification: This article has been updated to correct a misstatement on the part of Steven Pifer; he says that if the U.S. cut its nuclear arsenal in half, it would still have some 300 times as many weapons as North Korea.