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Afghan War: We're Not Done Paying

David Wood   |   February 11, 2013    1:15 PM ET

President Obama insists that the big U.S. role in Afghanistan is coming to an end -- he may use his State of the Union speech Tuesday to announce more cuts from the 66,000 American troops currently deployed there.

What's not coming to an end is the gusher of billions of dollars the United States is pouring into support of Afghanistan's army and national police. Since 2002, that has added up to $57 billion, if Congress gets around to appropriating the $5.7 billion the White House has requested for fiscal 2013.

Never mind that the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), despite almost a decade of effort by the United States and others, is failing to achieve self-sufficiency.

It's going to cost American taxpayers another $25 billion to keep the Afghan security forces going for the next five years, according to a new study released Monday by the Government Accountability Office. America pays about 91 percent of the cost of Afghan security forces; the allies plan to chip in about $1 billion a year, and Afghanistan itself promises $500 million a year.

That still leaves a gap in funding, the GAO reports in its just-the-facts-ma'am government gumshoe voice, "raising concerns about the sustainability of ANSF."

Translation: the contest between the White House and the Pentagon over how many fewer U.S. troops (White House) or more U.S. troops (Pentagon) are deployed in Afghanistan after 2014 tilts to the "more" side as the under-funded ANSF struggles to master the complex business of an enduring counterinsurgency campaign.

The thrust of the GAO report is this: either we pay more money for the ANSF, or we keep our troops -- trainers, advisers, enablers -- there longer. If the Afghan army and police can't manage their own combat logistics, medical evacuation and care, close air support and other vital missions, the U.S. will have to do those things for them.

Or is it possible we have over-envisioned what the Afghan security forces should be able to do? The Taliban, after all, don't have close air support either.

In Armed Drones Debate, The Real Issue Is Killing

David Wood   |   February 7, 2013    4:39 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- The debate over armed drones and whether the United States should use missile-firing robots to kill people identified as terrorists is an interesting one but it misses the point, many hardened warfighters say.

The real issue is about killing.

The debate, many say, should focus not on the drone itself -- a simple but efficient tool of war -- but on the political and legal issues of killing at a time when the distinctions between combatant and civilian, between battlefield and non-battlefield, are blurring. With whom is the United States at war, and why? And within what constraints of international and U.S. constitutional law does the United States kill?

"The whole drone thing is a technology issue," said Paul D. Eaton, a retired infantry commander with 33 years of service. "People are hung up on the word 'drone.' The real issue is: Who are you killing and what is the legal justification for doing that?"

In the U.S. national security budgeting and strategy, killing is taken for granted. At huge cost, the United States has amassed the world's largest collection of military weaponry, from assault rifles to $12 billion aircraft carriers to Trident II submarine-launched ballistic missiles that can carry eight thermonuclear warheads. All of it, including perhaps 375 armed drones, is designed to kill, or to coerce under the threat to kill.

In Iraq and now Afghanistan, U.S. military operations have been dressed up as counterinsurgency, but in the end, those operations are about killing, combat commanders say privately. And like U.S. military operations everywhere, they are conducted within strict "rules of engagement" that are nested within the Geneva Convention and the international laws of war.

And yet killing -- the taking of life authorized by the government -- is an issue that seems to make most Americans uncomfortable. The word itself is almost never mentioned at the Pentagon. President Barack Obama's speeches on Afghanistan omit mention of killing; even his Nobel acceptance speech justifying war noted that some Americans might be killed in combat, but never mentioned that Americans might do the killing. At his military retirement ceremony in 2011, Gen. David Petraeus, a career soldier who had led two wars, spoke of "the essence, the core of our military." And never uttered the word "killing."

But inside the working military, where killing is the mission, things look different.

From the small town of Sar Hawza in Afghanistan's Paktika Province, where U.S. infantrymen had been sent for a year's warfighting duty, came an emergency call one day: The town's new medical center had been seized by Taliban insurgents. It was Aug. 26, 2009, a sultry day, and the troopers came at a run and surrounded the building while local officials scurried to make sure the Afghan staff had escaped. Then the Americans went in.

Three soldiers, led by Staff Sgt. Kurt R. Curtiss, crept up the hallways, clearing the rooms one by one. One room left. Curtiss motioned the others to stay back. He kicked in the door. A fusillade of bullets knocked him backwards and he fell mortally wounded -- but alive. His men tried to drag him to safety but were driven back again and again by fire from the Taliban.

Curtiss died there in the doorway, long before the building was eventually cleared and the enemy killed. He was 27 years old, on his third combat deployment. He left behind his wife, a son, 9, and a 6-year-old daughter.

That Curtiss died in this manner infuriates Robert Scales, a retired warfighter with decades of experience. An armed drone, had one been overhead, might have saved Curtiss' life by killing the insurgents in that room as Curtiss and his men watched from safety. When there is killing to be done -- directed by the president, examined and approved by commanders and military lawyers in the chain of command -- best that it be done speedily and efficiently, Scales argues.

Armed drones, says Scales, "fundamentally change the business of close killing."

"You send guys in, and once you get within the deadly zone, the insurgents have better weapons than we do, in terms of reliability and massive shock power," he said. "So here you have an inferior American force with nothing overhead, coming under fire by an insurgent force able to gain firepower dominance very quickly, and there's nothing you can do about it except scream into a radio and have somebody 50 miles away decide what to do about it?

"That's no different than 1969, when I had the same thing happen to me in Vietnam. The only difference is, now we have armed drones! Please explain to me why we don't have these things hovering over our guys 24/7?"

Scales, a retired Army major general, was in charge of a remote artillery fire base in Vietnam as a lieutenant prior to a long Army career as a commander and strategist. In the late 1990s, Scales was in charge of designing the army of the future. He and his colleagues looked at the awful casualty rate of young American infantrymen sent into close combat. Why not just use a drone with a 12-pound bomb hanging on it? they wondered. "Back then we were saying, this revolutionizes everything," he said.

The Army is still working on the idea of protecting its infantry with armed drones. But the spread of armed drone technology from the shadowy world of counter-terrorism to the conventional battlefield is inevitable because of the key advantage they offer.

"The kill chain is so short," explains John Pike, one of the world's leading experts on weapons and the founder of, a Washington-based think tank. When the order comes down through the command levels, after a circling drone has helped to identify the target properly, the attack can be launched immediately. "Calling in a commando team is gonna take time," Pike said. "And I can't have commando teams circling around in the sky on the off-chance I'm gonna need 'em."

Of course, killing by armed drone -- just like killing with a Tomahawk cruise missile or long-range artillery cluster shell -- is a decision fraught with political, legal and moral issues, and especially when the targets are American citizens, as was the case with the Islamist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and his son, who were killed in Yemen in 2011.

The goals of a drone strike or other military killing are a political decision, said Scales. "Should we be killing Americans in Somalia? I don't know." But he worries that leaving those questions unanswered "adds legal and jurisdictional and doctrinal friction to the process -- and soldiers die needlessly.

"If you want to go kill Americans, pass a law, fight it out at the Supreme Court."

But if the nation decides to go to war, in Afghanistan or against terrorists, and orders the military into action, it should use all the applicable technology, he argues.

"We can do this with our people, or we can do it with our technology. This is the fundamental take-away of the new American way of war, and it shocks me that no one is talking about it."

CORRECTION: This article has been revised to note that the town of Sar Hawza is in Afghanistan, not Pakistan.

Pakistan Ambassador: U.S. Armed Drone Strikes Are 'Red Line'

David Wood   |   February 5, 2013   12:35 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- Smarting under the U.S. drone attacks it calls a violation of its sovereignty and international law, Pakistan has threatened to withhold cooperation with the United States on counter-terrorism operations until the drone strikes stop.

Sherry Rehman, Pakistan's ambassador to Washington, said Tuesday that the continuing drone strikes are a "red line," but she declined to say whether Pakistan would order its U.S.-made F-16 fighters to shoot down the drones.

"I can't speak to that issue," Rehman said at a breakfast meeting with reporters. But she insisted that Pakistan does not privately okay drone strikes inside Pakistan. "I can assure you there is no quiet complicity in this, there is no question of a wink and a nod," said Rehman, a powerful Pakistani politician who graduated with honors from Smith College in Northampton, Mass.

In its secretive and intensifying war against terrorists, the Obama administration has used its fleet of some 350 armed drones to kill people it asserts are terrorist leaders, mostly in Pakistan, but also in Yemen, Somalia and Afghanistan. That policy is expected to come under scrutiny Thursday when the Senate Intelligence Committee considers the nomination of John O. Brennan as CIA director. As President Obama's chief counterterrorism adviser, Brennan is considered the architect of the armed drone campaign.

While dismissing drone strikes as "operationally counterproductive," Rehman said Pakistan wants to continue to cooperate with the U.S. on counter-terrorism operations, especially as U.S. and allied conventional forces are drawing down in neighboring Afghanistan. But she portrayed the U.S. and Pakistani disagreement over the armed drone program as an obstacle. "The drones are the red line here," she said.

She was dismissive of the 12-year U.S. effort in Afghanistan, observing that "clearly, force has not been an answer over the years." She said the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan has become more turbulent, despite what she described as a determined Pakistani effort to control cross-border operations by the Taliban and other militant groups. And she rejected U.S. criticisms that Pakistan has allowed the Taliban sanctuary inside its territory.

"Don't always lay at our door what this big global [U.S.] force couldn't do in Afghanistan," she said. Pakistani forces have taken control of 86 percent of the tribal areas along the border, she said, up from 37 percent in 2009, and Pakistan has built 800 border control points to the 100 manned by Afghanistan. "We do what we can," she said. "It's hard to interdict on this border if the other side is unmanned."

Rehman repeated the objections to the drone strikes frequently voiced by Pakistani officials and critics around the world: that they create deep resentment on the ground in Pakistan and elsewhere; that they radicalize people who had tried to stand against terrorists; that the al Qaeda leadership is decimated anyway; and that in the long term it harms U.S. and Pakistan efforts against terrorists.

"We don't see drones as productive at all," she said.

But asked directly how her government would handle a demand from the Pakistani general staff to be allowed to shoot down the drones, she shot back: "Wouldn't you like to be a fly on that wall!"

When laughter died down, she added: "We are all on the same page now, members of the general staff and ourselves, on where the future of this lies. Pakistan has to take ownership of all anti-terror operations, absolutely all of them, in order to be sustainable and to be seen as legitimate in the eyes of our people."

Rehman also said Pakistan supports efforts toward a negotiated peace in Afghanistan, and insisted that Pakistan is scrupulously following the lead of the Afghan government. "We move when the Afghan government asks us to move," she said."This is a sovereign-led process, the goalposts and timelines are determined by them."

Women in Combat Handle Stress As Well as Men, Study Finds

David Wood   |   February 4, 2013    1:14 PM ET

Until the white-bearded Afghan man on a bike showed up, the joint patrol with Afghan national police and paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne had gone without incident. It was hot and tense, boots kicking up dust, men and boys squatting in shopfronts watching with indifference or hostility. One of the GIs was a young female soldier, an MP, and she was carrying an M249 Squad Automatic Weapon (SAW), a so-called "light" machine gun which weighs more than 20 pounds, with ammo.

I don't know how the guy on the bike identified this trooper as a woman, but apparently he did, and coming fast from behind he jolted her elbow with his handlebar before veering off cackling madly -- and she swung that weapon with a snarl and took a bead on his flapping robe ... and then spit into the dust and resumed walking. There was no justification for opening fire and she knew it. But her jaw was clenched tight.

I thought of that incident, which I witnessed in Kapisa Province several years ago, as the debate about women at war has heated up with the Pentagon's decision to allow women to compete for combat jobs. Not because women are targets, or more vulnerable than men. But because all those who serve in war zones, whether they are machine gunners or truck drivers or military police, face constant, persistent stress that can build over the course of three or six or 12 months at war.

It's long been an argument of opponents of opening combat jobs to women that they can't deal with this kind of stress as well as men; that women are more vulnerable to emotional damage.

But that appears not to be the case, at least in the short run. A detailed study by a senior researcher for the National Center for PTSD and the Boston VA Medical Center suggests that women have about the same reaction to wartime stress as men do.

"We were surprised," said VA psychologist Dawne Vogt, who authored the 2011 study of almost 600 men and women recently returned from deployment in Iraq or Afghanistan. Her team calculated the "combat stressors" that each veteran had been exposed to, including participating in firefights, seeing dead bodies, not getting enough sleep, lack of privacy and fear. Then they looked at how the troops were reacting to these stresses, measuring their alcohol use, depression and general mental health functioning. Men reported only slightly higher exposure to direct combat than women. But their reactions were about the same.

"We didn't see any meaningful differences" between men and women, Vogt told me. The data suggested "that the women are just as resilient to the effects of combat stress than men." Previous research on civilian men and women had suggested that women are more vulnerable to a short-term spike in stress -- say, a car wreck -- than men. But the persistence of stress in a war zone may level out gender differences, Vogt said.

Dawne Vogt's study isn't conclusive. But it does add some much-needed factual data into the debate about women and combat.

It also should remind us, as we continue to welcome the troops home, that each person who goes to war comes home having absorbed enormous stress, and each deals with it in his or her own way.

Chuck Hagel, Armed Services Committee Leave Out Strategy Post-Sequester

David Wood   |   January 31, 2013    5:40 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- In roughly eight hours of often heated discussions with the Senate Armed Services Committee Thursday, defense secretary-nominee Chuck Hagel raised and then left unanswered the critical question looming over the Pentagon: with defense budgets sinking, should U.S. defense strategy shrink as well?

And no one on the committee bothered to ask, with more than $1 trillion scheduled to be whacked out of the Pentagon's 10-year spending plan, what missions will it give up? Which parts of the world should go unpatrolled, which allies unsupported, which brush-fire conflicts allowed to burn on untended?

Those questions took on added urgency as Hagel, a former Republican senator, described a world of continuing danger, with challenges from nuclear-armed North Korea, terrorism-sponsoring Iran, turmoil across the Middle East and North Africa, a well-armed and restive China, cyber war, al Qaeda, war in Afghanistan, extremist violence in nuclear-armed Pakistan, piracy and other problems.

"We're at war around the world," Hagel testified.

But as he also acknowledged, "This is a time of priorities. Budgets drive that, but missions should always drive everything. What are going to be our missions in the Defense Department over the next few years? How are we going to resource those missions, what are the priorities going to be?" What's up for rethinking, he said, "is the entire universe of what the [national security] responsibilities are and how we carry those responsibilities out to secure this nation."

As some members leaned forward to hear him outline his own ideas on a revised strategy, Hagel concluded, "Until I would get over to the Pentagon, if I am confirmed … I won't be in a position to say this or this or we'll do this or we won't."

Rather than probing deeper into Hagel's ideas about how U.S. defense strategy could be revised, many of the committee members' questions involved Hagel's past positions on Israel, Iran and whether the "surge" of troops into Iraq in 2007 worked or didn't.

But the Pentagon's fiscal outlook is well known. After a decade of fat and rising budgets, it is now facing deep cuts and an era of relative austerity. It will lose $45 billion out of its operating budget in the remaining eight months of this fiscal year if automatic budget cuts known as sequestration go into effect March 1, as scheduled.

The Obama administration has already deleted $487 billion from the Pentagon's 10-year budget plan, erasing a planned increase. Another $500 billion will be drained out of the Pentagon's accounts over the next 10 years under congressional budget agreements.

The immediate effects are startling. Two of the Navy's carrier battle groups, which are scheduled to deploy this fall, would be delayed for as long as nine months as the Navy absorbs a $4.6 billion shortfall in its operations budgets this year. That means turbulent areas like the Persian Gulf and the South China Sea could go without the presence of U.S. naval power. Thirty of the Navy's 187 surface warships are due in for extended overhauls this year, work that would have to be postponed, Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations, said recently.

The military services have already been ordered to cut personnel over the next few years. The Army will shrink by 80,000, from 570,000 to 490,000 soldiers, and the Marine Corps will lose 67,000 Marines, bringing its strength down to 182,000. And given the continuing budget pressure, many expect further manpower cuts.

Those and other cuts carve deeply into the Pentagon's ability to continue its operations as currently planned, Hagel acknowledged in his written answers to the Armed Services Committee.

"The current strategy," he wrote, "could not be met with the significantly diminished resources that sequester would impose," including "the grounding of aircraft and returning ships to port, reducing the Department's global presence and ability to rapidly respond to contingencies."

The Pentagon, he added will "need to revise the defense strategy."

But he gave no hint of what that revision would look like.

Only one member of the committee, freshman Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) observed that the impending budget cuts will leave the Defense Department unable to respond to the challenges Hagel had described. "How do you decide what is going to be the priority?" she asked.

"I hope I did not give any indication we were going to be able to continue to do everything for everybody everywhere," Hagel responded late Thursday afternoon. "If I am confirmed, I will be working closely with our chiefs and all of our managers and decision-makers on how we do this."

The lack of a strategy underpinning the looming defense cuts worries some outside analysts. "I am quite alarmed that we seem to be in the middle of all kinds of budget deliberations without first starting with what we are trying to do as a nation," John Hamre, the former Pentagon comptroller and deputy defense secretary, said recently at an event sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Washington think tank where Hamre is president and CEO.

"Looking ahead," he said, "we ought to have a firm view of what it is we need to do, not just how much money are we going to have."

Military Personnel Worry That Budget Cuts Will Put Benefits At Risk

David Wood   |   January 30, 2013    4:17 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- For more than a decade, Congress and the Pentagon have spent money on the nation's 1.3 million active-duty troops and their families. Salaries and benefits soared far above civilian compensation, military bases and housing were refurbished, support services like day care, family counseling and on-base college courses were expanded.

Now comes the reckoning. These personnel costs, necessary and warranted for those bearing the burden of war, are threatening to wreck the military, squeezing the accounts meant to fix or replace gear worn from a decade of war, for research and development, and for new missions in, say, Africa.

So stubbornly are personnel costs rising that at the current rate of increase, they would consume the entire defense budget by the year 2039, leaving well-paid troops standing around with their tanks, ships and airplanes rusting and out of gas.

The problem has been evident for years -- the past two defense secretaries have called personnel costs "unsustainable." But neither the Obama White House nor Congress has signalled its willingness to tackle the issue by proposing bold reductions in pay and benefits -- or by deep cuts in the active-duty force.

In his confirmation hearing Thursday, former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) will get a chance to weigh in on the issue as the nominee for defense secretary. He has said nothing in public on the issue, and his background gives little clue: as a successful businessman he's cognizant of the bottom line; as a former combat infantryman, his heart may make him to reluctant to touch the grunts' pay stubs.

But with deep cuts in defense spending barrelling down toward the Pentagon, some defense officials and outside experts fear that the opportunity for thoughtful reforms may be passing. Personnel costs are likely to be cut -- but perhaps not wisely. A freeze on hiring of new civilian personnel, for instance, could demolish plans to hire more mental health care providers for returning troops suffering from post-traumatic stress, even though Ash Carter, deputy defense secretary, has vowed to protect such programs "to the extent feasible."

Military pay and benefits "are the third rail of budget planning in the Defense Department," said Gordon Adams, a defense economist who oversaw the post-Cold War defense drawdown during the Clinton administration. With no long-term budget deal in sight and no long-term planning in the works, the shrinking of the Defense Department "will happen year by year -- more ankle-biting than systematic planning," Adams said.

Pentagon spending plans are getting slammed by the automatic cuts under sequestration, scheduled to take place on March 1; by the likelihood that Congress will pass no new defense spending bill, leaving the Pentagon confined, under a continuing resolution to last year's defense budget plan; and by long-term spending cuts which have yet to be made.

But the impact is real. The Pentagon has been spending money it expected from the 2013 budget proposed last year by the White House. Cranking back to conform to last year's budget levels will be painful, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno said recently, requiring the Army to squeeze $6 billion out of its operations and maintenance accounts by Oct. 1. These are funds that pay for fuel, training, some family support programs and vehicle maintenance.

And while Pentagon officials have vowed not to cut family programs, a continuing resolution, rather than a new 2013 budget, will not allow the Army to move money from one operations account to another -- it all gets cut, Odierno said.

"People have been in denial about this ongoing trend, and now the accumulated impact of it is coming home," said Clark Murdock, a former senior planner at the Pentagon and a senior analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

But the data is clear. Since 2001, total military compensation, including pay and benefits, grew by 20.5 percent, while comparable private-sector civilian pay did not increase at all, according to a broad Pentagon review of pay and compensation released last year. The cost of military compensation rose steeply even though the size of the active-duty force grew by only 3 percent during that period.

Part of the reason was that Congress mandated that military personnel should get an annual pay raise 1 to 1.5 percent higher than the Employment Cost Index, which measures civilian earnings.

Thus, a sergeant's base pay and housing allowance rose 20.5 percent between 2001 and 2009, when the average enlisted military member was earning $50,747 in base pay and housing -- not including other allowances and bonuses. Officer pay rose 9.1 percent, to an average of $94,700.

Congress also demanded that the Pentagon absorb a larger share of the housing costs of military families. Their housing allowance was bumped up by 5.7 percent in 2007, another 4.7 percent in 2008 and 5 percent in 2009. Currently, the Pentagon pays all housing costs for families who live off base. Other benefits include shopping at on-base commissaries, which typically save military shoppers about 30 percent on groceries.

Base pay and housing allowance boosts the income of an Army master sergeant with 10 years of service, living at Fort Drum, N.Y., to $84,666.48 a year, according to the current Pentagon pay tables. This sergeant would pay a tax rate of 15 percent, a $6,417.40 tax advantage over civilians.

An Army captain with six years of service with the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, earns $85,330.80 a year in pay and housing allowance -- not counting bonuses, tax-free danger pay for service in a war zone and other benefits. A brigadier (one-star) general at Fort Drum, with 16 years of service, is earning $131,652 a year plus a housing allowance of $2,247 per month.

"The fiscal reality facing us means that we also have to look at the growth in personnel costs which are a major driver of budget growth and are, simply put, on an unsustainable course," soon-to-retire Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in October 2011. Months later, the White House included in its budget proposal a timid increase of between $31 and $128 a month in the health insurance premiums paid by military retirees, unchanged since 1985. That proposal was trashed by Congress.

But in the new era of budget austerity and tough choices, that kind of congressional protection may not last.

"Our folks are worried about whether they're going to get paid, what support services aren't going to be there to help them and their families," said Joyce Raezer, executive director of the National Military Family Association. She defended the increases in pay and benefits by saying, "We've been at war. We've had to pay for people to be at war."

The inevitable cuts in defense spending could, if not managed properly, hurt military families, she said. For instance, whittling down the size of the active duty force could put more of a burden on families if the global missions the military is expected to fill aren't reduced as well. "We are going to be an on-call force, there is going to be trouble somewhere, and if there are fewer people, the ones left will be on call more often," said Raezer, a long-time military spouse.

She also worries that cuts in family support programs will drive reductions in mental health services just at a time when they are most needed.

"We're not saying all these programs will be needed forever," said Raezer. But in all the talk about budget cuts and dwindling resources, she said, there is no thoughtful plan to reduce spending in a rational way.

"What we see coming," she said, "is budget cuts first -- and then figuring out how to do with less."

Clarification: Language has been added to clarify the calculations of base pay and allowance increases for specific members of the military. Original language in the headline and copy referring to "Lavish Benefits" was inaccurate and reflected neither the views of David Wood nor The Huffington Post. We regret the mischaracterization.

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No Reason Women Soldiers Can't Handle Fear, Exhaustion, Exhilaration

David Wood   |   January 24, 2013    5:38 PM ET

As a journalist covering Marines in desert combat training some time ago, I was tapped by the company commander to substitute as the main gun loader on an M1A2 Abrams tank. His loader had come down sick. I protested; he insisted, and he won. I reluctantly climbed into the tank, got a few seconds of instruction, and we lurched off into an intense, hours-long battle that required me to feed 55-pound 120 mm shells into the main gun whenever the tank commander hollered -- about every 60 seconds.

More recently, I launched on a combat mission with Marines in Afghanistan, a midnight helicopter raid into a Taliban stronghold. Instead of a weapon, I was packing my laptop and satellite transceiver. But along with each of the other Marines, I was wearing 30 pounds of body armor and helmet. And in my rucksack, I carried rations and a crushingly heavy two-day supply of water.

I thought of these experiences -- the fear, exhaustion and exhilaration -- as I was listening Thursday to Pentagon officials talking about opening up combat jobs to women. Tank loader and Marine rifleman are two of those jobs currently closed to women. Judging by my experience, at least, I see no reason why women couldn't do either.

But it ain't easy.

As a tank loader, you sit squeezed into the bottom of the tank on a tiny lip of metal used as a step by other crew members. At your right shoulder is a rack of 120 mm shells. Just barely above your left knee is the breech end of the massive main gun that can send that heavy shell three miles downrange. On the command of "LOAD HEAT!" (high explosive anti-tank round), the loader hits the knee switch that slides back the blast-proof door on the shell rack, pulls out a shell, twists around and lifts the shell to jam it up into the breech, yanks the locking lever and yells "UP!"

At the gunner's command, the gun erupts, the breech end jerking backwards in a thunderous explosion of smoke and flame that would slice off the loader's knee had he (or she!) not remembered to twist out of the way in time. The loader, temporarily deaf and stunned, brushes off burning embers, blinks through the smoke and braces for the next bellowed command: "LOAD HEAT!" And ... WHAM! and "LOAD HEAT!" ... WHAM! and, "LOAD HEAT!" ... WHAM!

See what I mean about terror and exhilaration?

A combat raid with Marine riflemen -- another job currently closed to women -- is more physically demanding, more exciting and more exhausting. Infantrymen are called grunts because of the sound they make when they walk. In the 82nd Airborne, a similar job, paratroopers hit the ground carrying an average of 104 pounds for a 72-hour operation, including their M4 carbine and seven magazines, radio and batteries, grenades, body armor and helmet, six field-stripped rations, five liters of water, and other stuff.

That's about what we carried, and I was feeling plenty sorry for myself until I came across a young PFC who, as a platoon commander's radio operator, was carrying 127 pounds. Okay, but this young Marine was small. He weighed less than 100 pounds himself and was surprised and pleased when I asked to take a picture to record his gumption.

We had exhaustively rehearsed the intricate movements we were to make when our helocopters blasted into the village and we raced out into the darkness. Some Marines would sprint to a far woodline. Some would take immediate cover and set up covering fire. Others would move out to set up a temporary command center. It mostly worked as expected. Fear is a terrific motivator. The strength to sprint fully loaded alongside the Marines came from my intense desire not to be left behind. I did discover that while it's easy to fling yourself down behind a sand ridge for cover, it's not so easy getting up again and running with a ruck full of water on your back.

By dusk that day, Marines had been at it for nearly 25 hours, and were beginning to droop. Some were wrapping duct tape around their bare waists to prevent damp, sandy combat fatigues from chafing. It would be a long night, and another long day, and a long week.

But nothing a woman couldn't handle.

Pentagon to Lift Ban on Women in Combat

David Wood   |   January 23, 2013    3:47 PM ET

Just to be clear, it's been a decade or more since I've gotten angry emails from civilian macho-men incensed at the idea that women could and should be allowed to take on combat roles in the armed forces. Many of the military women I know have been agitating for decades for the opportunity to compete for those jobs.

Still, it's heartening to see that SecDef Panetta, as one of his last (and major) acts in office, should take the step of lifting the Pentagon's combat exclusion rule that has long barred women from serving in combat arms units, where the adventure, challenge and opportunity for career advancement are at a peak. (The official announcement is expected Thursday morning.)

Not that women weren't already in the fight. In January 2002 I watched a handful of tough Afghan warriors snigger and elbow each other when a young female PFC climbed into the turret of her gun truck and settled in behind her .50-cal. As a U.S. Army MP, she was allowed to deploy ... and worked combat patrols. The Afghans' sniggering stopped when she loosed off a few rounds at a wrecked Russian tank in the distance, hitting that practice target dead-on with casual panache. At the time I was bunking with the MP platoon in a drafty 20-person coed tent. When I asked one young female sergeant if it bothered her to be changing clothes with the guys, she shrugged. "They know what I got, I know what they got," she said.

End of story.

More recently I was with a Marine company in Afghanistan taking fire from a wood line; an air strike was called and an attack helicopter showed up -- piloted, our FAC announced with delight, by a female. She silenced the enemy with a barrage of rockets, followed by cheers and fist-pumps by the Marines. No question in their minds either.

I'm sure we'll be hearing again from Phyllis Schlafly, who's made a career of opposing the "radical Feminists" who are "pushing women into military combat."

But I think this is a done deal. Finally. And a salute to all those who volunteer.

Armed Terrorist Drones Could Target President, Says Ex-U.S. Intelligence Chief

David Wood   |   January 22, 2013    1:26 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- As the technology for arming drones spreads around the world, terrorists could use the unmanned, missile-firing aircraft to attack and kill the president and other U.S. leaders, the former chief of U.S. intelligence said Tuesday.

Retired Adm. Dennis Blair, who served as President Obama's first director of national intelligence, told reporters he was concerned that the proliferation of armed drones -- a potential outgrowth of the U.S. reliance on drones to attack and kill terrorists -- could well backfire.

"I do fear that if al Qaeda can develop a drone, its first thought will be to use it to kill our president, and senior officials and senior officers," Blair said during a conference call with reporters. "It is possible without a great deal of intelligence to do something with a drone you cannot do with a high-powered rifle or driving a car full of explosives and other ways terrorists now use to try killing senior officials," he said.

The U.S. development and growing use of armed drones has not "opened a huge Pandora's box which will make us wish we had never invented the drone," Blair said. But he said if drones are acquired by terrorist groups, it would force the U.S. to take defensive measures. Yet, the U.S. already has extensive surveillance of its airspace and sophisticated weapons designed against a variety of airborne threats.

The Obama administration has accelerated armed drone strikes against individuals and groups in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia as well as Afghanistan, in a campaign which is almost entirely secret. Administration officials have said the strikes are necessary to combat terrorist plotting against the U.S. But while President Obama and other officials have declared the strikes are legal, the White House has refused to divulge its legal justification for the strikes, which have included the killing of an American citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki.

Blair said the Obama administration has only "partly thought through" the repercussions of its expanded drone attack campaign, including the inevitable proliferation of drone technology to other countries and organizations. He spoke Tuesday on a call organized by the Council on Foreign Relations, with senior analyst Micah Zenko.

Already, dozens of countries from Iran to China are using surveillance drones, and experts believe it will not be long before swarms of armed drones take to the air.

The Obama administration is coming under increasing pressure to unveil at least some details of the secretive drone counter-terrorist campaign, which is carried out by the Joint Special Operations Command and by the CIA. The latter agency largely operates the drone strikes against terrorist groups in Pakistan.

Blair -- who was dismissed by President Obama in May 2010 after a falling-out over intelligence matters -- said the administration should make public some details of how and why it decides that some terrorists should be targeted. "The United States is a democracy, we want our people to know how we use military force and that we use it in ways the United States is proud of," Blair said. "There's been far too little debate" about this form of killing.

The drone strikes are reviewed, after they have taken place, by the House and Senate intelligence committees, so there is some oversight of the process by which targets are selected and people killed. But Blair said he doubted the White House would allow the public insight into the drone program. "They've made the cold-blooded calculation that it's better to hunker down and take the criticism than to take the debate public -- which I think in the long run is essential," he said.

But Blair acknowledged that a robust public discussion about the legal basis for the drones campaigns would have little deterrent effect on terrorists. He said extremist groups look at how the U.S. frames its military strikes in legal terms not in order to emulate that behavior but "in order to find weaknesses" they can exploit.

"If a terrorist group gets drone technology," Blair said, "it will use it against us every way they can."

Pentagon Alert: Freezing Refugees Need Your Help

David Wood   |   January 21, 2013    1:46 PM ET

Winter has hit hard across Afghanistan, and nowhere more so than in camps for internally displaced Afghans, where some 450,000 desperate families have ended up after fleeing the war and its ravages. Among them are many children and elderly, and according to new report by Amnesty International, they are dying, from intense cold and malnutrition.
Apparently there are two causes: inadequate food and shelter, and the reluctance of local Afghan officials to help out for fear the refugees will become permanent residents in their district.
The Pentagon budget bill just signed by the President contained $88.5 billion for operations in Afghanistan. I bet there's money in there to pay for the needed blankets, tent, heaters and rations. A word from Defense Secretary Panetta would send those gifts to where they're needed (think of the great video!), and a sharp message to those local officials wouldn't be out of place: take care of your people.
Mr. Secretary?

JSOC: Heads Up!

David Wood   |   January 18, 2013    1:30 PM ET

I wrote yesterday about the developing opportunity for new SOF missions in Mali and perhaps Algeria, if the Algerians and French would stand aside.
Today in London, SecDef issued what sounded to me like a warning order:

Terrorists should be on notice that they will find no sanctuary, no
refuge, not in Algeria, not in North Africa, not anywhere. Those who
would wantonly attack our country and our people will have no place to

Not that JSOC wasn't already working on Algeria and Mali. I know the optempo for our SOF guys has been pretty high for a long time. Still, this seems to me like it'll be the first SOF deployment in what will become a SOF-centric decade ahead. Buckle seatbelts!.

Five Pick-Ups and a War

  |   January 15, 2013   10:54 AM ET

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