History > 2009 > USA > War > Afghanistan (III)
Sixteen-month-old Aubrey Melton
reaches for her father, SSG Josh
as she views his body with her mother Larissa
before his funeral service on June 27, 2009
in Germantown, Illinois. SSG Melton,
who was serving in Afghanistan
with the Illinois National Guard,
was killed in Kandaha
during an IED attack on June 19.
The Boston Globe > The Big Picture
In Afghanistan, Part Two
July 17, 2009
Poses Tough Choices for Obama
August 24, 2009
Filed at 3:34 a.m. ET
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
The New York Times
WASHINGTON (AP) -- With the nation's top military officer calling the
situation in Afghanistan dire, President Barack Obama soon may face two equally
unattractive choices: increase U.S. troops to beat back a resilient enemy, or
stick with the 68,000 already committed and risk the political fallout if that's
Adm. Mike Mullen on Sunday described the situation in Afghanistan as ''serious
and deteriorating,'' but refused to say whether additional forces would be
''Afghanistan is very vulnerable in terms of (the) Taliban and extremists taking
over again, and I don't think that threat's going to go away,'' he said.
Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, is
completing an assessment of what he needs to win the fight there. That review,
however, won't specifically address force levels, according to Mullen, the
chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
But military officials privately believe McChrystal may ask for as many as
20,000 additional forces to get an increasingly difficult security situation in
Afghanistan under control. And one leading Republican is already saying
McChrystal will be pressured to ask for fewer troops than he requires.
''I think there are great pressures on General McChrystal to reduce those
estimates,'' said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in an interview broadcast Sunday on
ABC's ''This Week.'' ''I don't think it's necessarily from the president. I
think it's from the people around him and others that I think don't want to see
a significant increase in our troops' presence there.''
Mullen also expressed concern about diminishing support among a war-weary
American public as the U.S. and NATO enter their ninth year of combat and
In joint TV interviews, Mullen and U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry said last
week's presidential election in Afghanistan was historic, given the threats of
intimidation voters faced as they headed to polling stations. It could be
several weeks, however, before it's known whether incumbent Hamid Karzai or one
of his challengers won.
Charges of fraud in the election are extensive enough to possibly sway the final
result, and the number of allegations is likely to grow, according to the
independent Electoral Complaints Commission, the U.N.-backed body investigating
Obama's strategy for defeating the Taliban and al-Qaida is a work in progress as
more U.S. troops are sent there, Mullen said.
Three years ago, the U.S. had about 20,000 forces in the country. Today, it has
triple that, on the way to 68,000 by year's end when all the extra 17,000 troops
that Obama announced in March are in place. An additional 4,000 troops will help
train Afghan forces.
Mullen said the security situation in Afghanistan needs to be reversed in the
next 12 to 18 months.
''I think it is serious and it is deteriorating, and I've said that over the
last couple of years, that the Taliban insurgency has gotten better, more
sophisticated,'' he said.
Just over 50 percent of respondents to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released
this past week said the war in Afghanistan is not worth fighting.
Mullen, a Vietnam veteran, said he's aware that public support for the war is
critical. ''Certainly the numbers are of concern,'' he said.
''We're just getting the pieces in place from the president's new strategy on
the ground now,'' he said. ''I don't see this as a mission of endless drift. I
think we know what to do.''
McChrystal's orders from Mullen and Defense Secretary Robert Gates were ''to go
out, assess where you are, and then tell us what you need,'' Mullen said.
''And we'll get to that point. And I want to, I guess, assure you or reassure
you that he hasn't asked for any additional troops up until this point in
time,'' he said.
Mullen and Eikenberry appeared on NBC's ''Meet the Press'' and CNN's ''State of
On the Net:
Afghanistan Poses Tough
Choices for Obama, NYT, 24.8.2009,
Mullen Issues Caution on Afghanistan
August 24, 2009
The New York Times
By BRIAN KNOWLTON
WASHINGTON — The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said on Sunday that
conditions in Afghanistan were “deteriorating,” even as Afghans awaited results
of their presidential election last week and as the new American commander in
the region worked to complete a major progress assessment and perhaps to propose
a further troop increase.
“I think it is serious and it is deteriorating,” Adm. Mike Mullen said on CNN’s
“State of the Union,” “and I’ve said that over the past couple of years, that
the Taliban insurgency has gotten better, more sophisticated, in their tactics.”
Top American commanders have been making similar grim pronouncements for months,
but Admiral Mullen’s remark came amid the election, the strategy review by
General Stanley McChrystal and a steady decline in American public support for
the war. Recent polls show those opposing the war now slightly outnumber those
Admiral Mullen, who as chairman is the nation’s highest-ranking military
officer, said that General McChrystal was still completing his review and had
not yet requested additional troops on top of the 17,000 decided on earlier by
President Obama. “His guidance from me and from the secretary of defense was to
assess where you are and tell us what you need, and we’ll get to that point,”
the admiral said.
A leading Republican voice on security matters, Senator John McCain of Arizona,
said Sunday that he thought the general faced heavy pressure not to seek large
numbers of additional troops, but he also said he did not think the pressure was
coming from President Obama.
“I think there are great pressures on General McChrystal to reduce those
estimates,” the senator said on ABC’s “This Week.”
“I don’t think it’s necessarily from the president, I think it’s from the people
around him and others,” Mr. McCain said. “But I have confidence that he will
make his most honest and best recommendations.”
Both the senator and Admiral Mullen said that they thought it important that
serious signs of progress begin emerging in the next 12 to 18 months if the
administration is to withstand public and congressional pressures to leave
“I think you need to see a reversal of these very alarming and disturbing
trends,” said Mr. McCain, who recently returned from a trip to Afghanistan.
The admiral counseled patience, noting on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that “we’re
just getting the pieces in place of the president’s new strategy.”
“I don’t see this as a mission of endless drift,” he said. “We learned a lot of
lessons from Iraq.”
Mullen Issues Caution on
Afghanistan, NYT, 24.8.2009,
Marines Fight Taliban
With Little Aid From Afghans
August 23, 2009
The New York Times
By RICHARD A. OPPEL Jr.
KHAN NESHIN, Afghanistan — American Marines secured this desolate village in
southern Afghanistan nearly two months ago, and last week they were fortifying
bases, on duty at checkpoints and patrolling in full body armor in 120-degree
heat. Despite those efforts, only a few hundred Afghans were persuaded to come
out here and vote for president on Thursday.
In a region the Taliban have lorded over for six years, and where they remain a
menacing presence, American officers say their troops alone are not enough to
reassure Afghans. Something is missing that has left even the recently appointed
district governor feeling dismayed. “I don’t get any support from the
government,” said the governor, Massoud Ahmad Rassouli Balouch.
Governor Massoud has no body of advisers to help run the area, no doctors to
provide health care, no teachers, no professionals to do much of anything. About
all he says he does have are police officers who steal and a small group of
Afghan soldiers who say they are here for “vacation.”
It all raises serious questions about what the American mission is in southern
Afghanistan — to secure the area, or to administer it — and about how long
Afghans will tolerate foreign troops if they do not begin to see real benefits
from their own government soon. American commanders say there is a narrow window
to win over local people from the guerrillas.
Securing the region is overwhelming enough. The Marines have just enough forces
to clear out small pockets like Khan Neshin. And despite the Americans’
presence, Afghan officials said 290 people voted here last week at what is the
only polling place in a region the size of Connecticut. Some officers were
stunned even that many voted, given the reports of widespread intimidation.
Even with the new operation in Helmand Province, which involves the Marines here
and more than 3,000 others as part of President Obama’s troop deployments, the
military lacks the troop strength even to try to secure some significant
population centers and guerrilla strongholds in central and southern Helmand.
And they do not have nearly enough forces to provide the kinds of services
throughout the region that would make a meaningful difference in Afghans’ lives,
which, in any case, is a job American commanders would rather leave for the
Meanwhile, Afghans in Khan Neshin, the Marines’ southernmost outpost in Helmand
Province, are coming to the Americans with requests for medical care, repairs of
clogged irrigation canals and the reopening of schools.
“Without the Afghan government, we will not be successful,” said Capt. Korvin
Kraics, the battalion’s lawyer, who is in Khan Neshin. “You need local-level
bureaucracy to defeat the insurgency. Without the stability that brings, the
Taliban can continue to maintain control.”
Local administration is a problem throughout Afghanistan, and many rural areas
suffer from corrupt local officials — if they have officials at all. But
southern Helmand has long been one of the most ungovernable regions, a vast,
inhospitable desert dominated by opium traffickers and the Taliban.
It not clear what promises of support from the Afghan government the Americans
had, or whether they undertook the mission knowing that the backing necessary to
complete it, at least in southern Helmand, might not arrive soon — if at all.
The Americans in Khan Neshin doubt that the Afghan government promised much of
Governor Massoud said he personally admired the Marines here, from the Second
Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, but he said many people “just don’t want
He estimated that two of every three local residents supported the Taliban,
mostly because they make a living growing poppy for the drug trade, which the
Taliban control. Others support them for religious reasons or because they
object to foreign forces.
Not least, people understand that the Taliban have not disappeared, but simply
fallen back to Garmsir, 40 miles north, and will almost surely try to return.
Lt. Col. Tim Grattan, the battalion commander, said the local residents’
ambivalence reflected fears of what could happen to anyone who sided with the
Marines, an apprehension stoked by past operations that sent troops in only for
“They are on the fence,” Colonel Grattan said. “They want to go with a winner.
They want to see if we stay around and will be able to protect them from the
Taliban and any repercussions.”
As for follow-up assistance, Colonel Grattan said the Afghan national government
“has been ineffective to date.”
The shortfall in Afghan government support is important not only in terms of
defining the Marines’ mission here, but also because it crimps their operations.
The Marines, unlike units in some other regions, answer to a NATO-led command
and are under orders to defer to Afghan military and civilian officials, even if
there are none nearby.
For instance, Marines must release detainees after 96 hours or turn them over to
Afghan forces for prosecution, even if the nearest prosecutors or judges are 80
miles away. Some detainees who the Marines say are plainly implicated in attacks
using improvised explosive devices or mortars have been released.
The problems are compounded by a shortage of American troops, despite the recent
reinforcements. The Marine battalion, which deployed with less than 40 percent
of its troops, can regularly patrol only a small portion of its
To do even that they have stretched: three-fifths of the Marines are stationed
at checkpoints and a handful of austere outposts ringing Khan Neshin, living
without air-conditioning or refrigerated water.
That leaves no regular troop presence across the vast southernmost reaches of
Helmand. On the Pakistani border the town of Baramcha — a major smuggling hub
and Taliban stronghold — remains untouched by regular military units. American
and Afghan officials say Baramcha’s influence radiates through southern Helmand,
undermining Marine and British military units elsewhere. “It’s the worst place
in Afghanistan,” Governor Massoud said.
If the Afghan national government can provide more resources and security forces
— and the Marines add more men — then the United States may be able to leave in
two to three years, Colonel Grattan said.
Without that, he said, it could take much longer. For now, little help is
Frustrated, Governor Massoud said his “government is weak and cannot provide
agricultural officials, school officials, prosecutors and judges.”
He said he was promised 120 police officers, but only 50 showed up. He said many
were untrustworthy and poorly trained men who stole from the people, a
description many of the Americans agree with. No more than 10 percent appear to
have attended a police academy, they say. “Many are just men from the streets,”
the governor said.
The Afghan National Army contingent appears sharper — even if only one-sixth the
size that Governor Massoud said he was promised — but the soldiers have resisted
some missions because they say they were sent not to fight, but to recuperate.
“We came here to rest, then we are going somewhere else,” said Lt. Javed Jabar
Khail, commander of the 31-man unit. The Marines say they hope the next batch of
Afghan soldiers will not be expecting a holiday.
In the meantime, at the local bazaar, just outside the Marines’ base, the
foreign troop presence remains a hard sell.
When one man, Abdul Hanan, complained that “more people are dying,” First Lt.
Jake Weldon told him that the Taliban “take away your schools, they take away
your hospitals; we bring those things.”
Mr. Hanan remained doubtful. Some people have fled the area, fearful of violence
since the Marines have arrived. He asked, “So you want to build us a hospital or
school, but if nobody is here, what do we do?”
Marines Fight Taliban
With Little Aid From Afghans, NYT, 23.8.2009,
Become Obama’s Vietnam?
August 23, 2009
The New York Times
By PETER BAKER
WASHINGTON — President Obama had not even taken office before supporters were
etching his likeness onto Mount Rushmore as another Abraham Lincoln or the
second coming of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Yet what if they got the wrong predecessor? What if Mr. Obama is fated to be
another Lyndon B. Johnson instead?
To be sure, such historical analogies are overly simplistic and fatally flawed,
if only because each presidency is distinct in its own way. But the L.B.J. model
— a president who aspired to reshape America at home while fighting a losing war
abroad — is one that haunts Mr. Obama’s White House as it seeks to salvage
Afghanistan while enacting an expansive domestic program.
In this summer of discontent for Mr. Obama, as the heady early days give way to
the grinding battle for elusive goals, he looks ahead to an uncertain future not
only for his legislative agenda but for what has indisputably become his war.
Last week’s elections in Afghanistan played out at the same time as the debate
over health care heated up in Washington, producing one of those split-screen
moments that could not help but remind some of Mr. Johnson’s struggles to build
a Great Society while fighting in Vietnam.
“The analogy of Lyndon Johnson suggests itself very profoundly,” said David M.
Kennedy, the Stanford University historian. Mr. Obama, he said, must avoid
letting Afghanistan shadow his presidency as Vietnam did Mr. Johnson’s. “He
needs to worry about the outcome of that intervention and policy and how it
could spill over into everything else he wants to accomplish.”
By several accounts, that risk weighs on Mr. Obama these days. Mr. Kennedy was
among a group of historians who had dinner with Mr. Obama at the White House
earlier this summer where the president expressed concern that Afghanistan could
yet hijack his presidency. Although Mr. Kennedy said he could not discuss the
off-the-record conversation, others in the room said Mr. Obama acknowledged the
“He said he has a problem,” said one person who attended that dinner at the end
of June, insisting on anonymity to share private discussions. “This is not just
something he can turn his back on and walk away from. But it’s an issue he
understands could be a danger to his administration.”
Another person there was Robert Caro, the L.B.J. biographer who was struck that
Mr. Johnson made some of his most fateful decisions about Vietnam in the same
dining room. “All I could think of when I was sitting there and this subject
came up was the setting,” he said. “You had such an awareness of how things can
Without quoting what the president said, Mr. Caro said it was clear Mr. Obama
understood that precedent. “Any president with a grasp of history — and it seems
to me President Obama has a deep understanding of history — would have to be
very aware of what happened in another war to derail a great domestic agenda,”
Afghanistan, of course, is not exactly Vietnam. At its peak, the United States
had about 500,000 troops in Vietnam, compared with about 68,000 now set for
Afghanistan, and most of those fighting in the 1960s were draftees as opposed to
volunteer soldiers. Vietnam, therefore, reached deeper into American society,
touching more homes and involving more unwilling participants. But the politics
of the two seem to evoke comparisons.
Just as Mr. Johnson believed he had no choice but to fight in Vietnam to contain
communism, Mr. Obama last week portrayed Afghanistan as the bulwark against
international terrorism. “This is not a war of choice,” he told the Veterans of
Foreign Wars at their convention in Phoenix. “This is a war of necessity. Those
who attacked America on 9/11 are plotting to do so again. If left unchecked, the
Taliban insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven from which Al Qaeda would
plot to kill more Americans.”
But while many Americans once shared that view, polls suggest that conviction is
fading nearly eight years into the war. The share of Americans who said the war
in Afghanistan was worth fighting slipped below 50 percent in a survey released
last week by The Washington Post and ABC News. A July poll by the New York Times
and CBS News showed that 57 percent of Americans think things are going badly
for the United States in Afghanistan, compared with 33 percent who think they
are going well.
That growing disenchantment in the countryside is increasingly mirrored in
Washington, where liberals in Congress are speaking out more vocally against the
Afghan war and newspapers are filled with more columns questioning America’s
involvement. The cover of the latest Economist is headlined “Afghanistan: The
Growing Threat of Failure.”
Richard N. Haass, a former Bush administration official turned critic, wrote in
The New York Times last week that what he once considered a war of necessity has
become a war of choice. While he still supports it, he argued that there are now
alternatives to a large-scale troop presence, like drone attacks on suspected
terrorists, more development aid and expanded training of Afghan police and
His former boss, George W. Bush, learned first-hand how political capital can
slip away when an overseas war loses popular backing. With Iraq in flames, Mr.
Bush found little support for his second-term domestic agenda of overhauling
Social Security and liberalizing immigration laws. L.B.J. managed to create
Medicare and enact landmark civil rights legislation but some historians have
argued that the Great Society ultimately stalled because of Vietnam.
Mr. Obama has launched a new strategy intended to turn Afghanistan around,
sending an additional 21,000 troops, installing a new commander, promising more
civilian reconstruction help, shifting to more protection of the population and
building up Afghan security forces. It is a strategy that some who study
Afghanistan believe could make a difference.
But even some who agree worry that time is running out at home, particularly if
the strategy does not produce results quickly. Success is so hard to imagine
that Richard Holbrooke, Mr. Obama’s special representative for Afghanistan, this
month came up with this definition: “We’ll know it when we see it.”
The consequences of failure go beyond just Afghanistan. Next door is its
volatile neighbor Pakistan, armed with nuclear weapons and already seething with
radical anti-American elements.
“It could all go belly up and we could run out of public support,” said Ronald
E. Neumann, a former ambassador to Afghanistan and now president of the American
Academy of Diplomacy. “The immediate danger is we don’t explain to Americans how
long things take. I certainly get questions like, ‘Is the new strategy turning
things around? Is the civilian surge working?’ We’re not going to even get all
of those people on the ground for months.”
Others are not so sure that the new strategy will make a difference regardless
of how much time it is given. No matter who is eventually declared the winner of
last week’s election in Afghanistan, the government there remains so plagued by
corruption and inefficiency that it has limited legitimacy with the Afghan
public. Just as America was frustrated with successive South Vietnamese
governments, it has grown sour on Afghanistan’s leaders with little obvious
Lt. Col. Douglas A. Ollivant, a retired Army officer who worked on Iraq on the
National Security Council staff first for Mr. Bush and then for Mr. Obama, said
Afghanistan may be “several orders of magnitude” harder. It has none of the
infrastructure, education and natural resources of Iraq, he noted, nor is the
political leadership as aligned in its goals with those of America’s leadership.
“We’re in a place where we don’t have good options and that’s what everyone is
struggling with,” Colonel Ollivant said. “Sticking it out seems to be a 10-year
project and I’m not sure we have the political capital and financial capital to
do that. Yet withdrawing, the cost of that seems awfully high as well. So we
have the wolf by the ear.”
And as L.B.J. discovered, the wolf has sharp teeth.
Could Afghanistan Become
Obama’s Vietnam?, NYT, 23.8.2009,
to Be Valuable Assets
July 28, 2009
The New York Times
By BENEDICT CAREY
The sight was not that unusual, at least not for Mosul, Iraq, on a summer
morning: a car parked on the sidewalk, facing opposite traffic, its windows
rolled up tight. Two young boys stared out the back window, kindergarten age
maybe, their faces leaning together as if to share a whisper.
The soldier patrolling closest to the car stopped. It had to be hot in there; it
was 120 degrees outside. “Permission to approach, sir, to give them some water,”
the soldier said to Sgt. First Class Edward Tierney, who led the nine-man patrol
“I said no — no,” Sergeant Tierney said in a telephone interview from
Afghanistan. He said he had an urge to move back before he knew why: “My body
suddenly got cooler; you know, that danger feeling.”
The United States military has spent billions on hardware, like signal jamming
technology, to detect and destroy what the military calls improvised explosive
devices, or I.E.D.’s, the roadside bombs that have proved to be the greatest
threat in Iraq and now in Afghanistan, where Sergeant Tierney is training
soldiers to foil bomb attacks.
Still, high-tech gear, while helping to reduce casualties, remains a mere
supplement to the most sensitive detection system of all — the human brain.
Troops on the ground, using only their senses and experience, are responsible
for foiling many I.E.D. attacks, and, like Sergeant Tierney, they often cite a
gut feeling or a hunch as their first clue.
Everyone has hunches — about friends’ motives, about the stock market, about
when to fold a hand of poker and when to hold it. But United States troops are
now at the center of a large effort to understand how it is that in a
life-or-death situation, some people’s brains can sense danger and act on it
well before others’ do.
Experience matters, of course: if you have seen something before, you are more
likely to anticipate it the next time. And yet, recent research suggests that
something else is at work, too.
Small differences in how the brain processes images, how well it reads emotions
and how it manages surges in stress hormones help explain why some people sense
imminent danger before most others do.
Studies of members of the Army Green Berets and Navy Seals, for example, have
found that in threatening situations they experience about the same rush of the
stress hormone cortisol as any other soldier does. But their levels typically
drop off faster than less well-trained troops, much faster in some cases.
In the past two years, an Army researcher, Steven Burnett, has overseen a study
into human perception and bomb detection involving about 800 military men and
women. Researchers have conducted exhaustive interviews with experienced
fighters. They have administered personality tests and measured depth
perception, vigilance and related abilities. The troops have competed to find
bombs in photographs, videos, virtual reality simulations and on the ground in
The study complements a growing body of work suggesting that the speed with
which the brain reads and interprets sensations like the feelings in one’s own
body and emotions in the body language of others is central to avoiding imminent
“Not long ago people thought of emotions as old stuff, as just feelings —
feelings that had little to do with rational decision making, or that got in the
way of it,” said Dr. Antonio Damasio, director of the Brain and Creativity
Institute at the University of Southern California. “Now that position has
reversed. We understand emotions as practical action programs that work to solve
a problem, often before we’re conscious of it. These processes are at work
continually, in pilots, leaders of expeditions, parents, all of us.”
Seeing What Others Miss
The patrol through Mosul’s main marketplace never became routine, not once, not
after the 10th time or the 40th. A divot in the gravel, a slight shadow in a
ditch, a pile of discarded cans; any one could be deadly; every one raised the
same question: Is there something — anything — out of place here?
Clearing a road of bombs is one of the least glamorous and most dangerous jobs
on the planet. It is also one of the most important. In May, coalition forces
found 465 of them in Afghanistan and 333 in Iraq. The troops foiled more than
half the traps over all — but about 10 percent of the bombs killed or maimed a
soldier or a Marine.
“We had indicators we’d look for, but you’d really have to be aware of
everything, every detail,” said Sergeant Tierney, whose unit was working with
the Iraqi police in that summer of 2004.
In recent years, the bombs have become more powerful, the hiding places ever
more devious. Bombs in fake rocks. Bombs in poured concrete, built into curbs.
Bombs triggered by decoy bombs.
“On one route sweep mission, there was a noticeable I.E.D. in the middle of the
road, but it was a decoy,” said Lt. Donovan Campbell, who in 2004 led a Marine
platoon for seven months of heavy fighting in Ramadi and wrote a vivid book,
“Joker One,” about the experience. “The real bomb was encased in concrete, a
hundred meters away, in the midst of rubble. One of my Marines spotted it. He
said, ‘That block looks too symmetrical, too perfect.’ ”
Lieutenant Campbell had the area cleared and the bomb destroyed.
“Unless you know what rubble in that part of Iraq looks like, there’s no way
you’d see that,” he said. “I had two guys, one we called Hound Dog, who were
really good at spotting things that didn’t fit.”
The men and women who performed best in the Army’s I.E.D. detection study had
the sort of knowledge gained through experience, according to a preliminary
analysis of the results; but many also had superb depth perception and a keen
ability to sustain intense focus for long periods. The ability to pick odd
shapes masked in complex backgrounds — a “Where’s Waldo” type of skill that some
call anomaly detection — also predicted performance on some of the roadside bomb
“Some of these things cannot be trained, obviously,” said Jennifer Murphy, a
psychologist at the Army Research Institute and the principal author of the
I.E.D. study. “But some may be; these are fighters who become very sensitive to
small changes in the environment. They’ll clear the same road every day and
notice ridiculously subtle things: this rock was not here yesterday.”
In a study that appeared last month, neuroscientists at Princeton University
demonstrated just how sensitive this visual ability is — and how a gut feeling
may arise before a person becomes conscious of what the brain has registered.
They had students try to pick out figures — people or cars — in a series of
photos that flashed by on a computer screen. The pictures flashed by four at a
time, and the participants were told to scan only two of them, either those
above and below the center point, or those to the left and right. Eye-tracking
confirmed that they did just that.
But brain scans showed that the students’ brains registered the presence of
people or cars even when the figures appeared in photos that they were not
paying attention to. They got better at it, too, with training.
Some people’s brains were almost twice as fast at detecting the figures as
others’. “It appears that the brain primes the whole visual system to be
strongly sensitive to categories of visual input,” kinds of things to look for,
said Marius V. Peelen, a neuroscientist at Princeton and a co-author of the
study with Li Fei-Fei and Sabine Kastner. “And apparently some people’s visual
system processes things much faster than others’.”
Something in the Air
A soldier or Marine could have X-ray vision and never see most I.E.D.’s,
however. Veterans say that those who are most sensitive to the presence of the
bombs not only pick up small details but also have the ability to step back and
observe the bigger picture: extra tension in the air, unusual rhythms in Iraqi
daily life, oddities in behavior.
“One afternoon I remember turning down a road in Baghdad we were very familiar
with, and there’s no one out — very creepy for that time of day,” said Sgt. Don
Gomez, a spokesman for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, who took
part in the invasion and later, in 2005, drove a general in and around Baghdad.
Trash was heaped in a spot along the street where Sergeant Gomez and other
drivers in the convoy had not seen it before, so they gave it a wide berth.
“We later called it in to an explosives team and, sure enough, they found one
and detonated it — the thing left a huge crater,” he said.
As the brain tallies cues, big and small, consciously and not, it may send out
an alarm before a person fully understands why.
In a landmark experiment in 1997, researchers at the University of Iowa had
people gamble on a simple card game. Each participant was spotted $2,000 and had
to choose cards from any of four decks. The cards offered immediate rewards, of
$50 or $100, and the occasional card carried a penalty. But the game was rigged:
the penalties in two of the decks were modest and in the other two decks were
The pattern was unpredictable, but on average the players reported “liking” some
decks better than others by the 50th card to the 80th card drawn before they
could fully explain why. Their bodies usually tensed up — subtly, but
significantly, according to careful measures of sweat — in a few people as early
as about the 10th card drawn, according to the authors, Dr. Damasio; his wife,
Dr. Hanna Damasio; Dr. Antoine Bechara; and Dr. Daniel Tranel.
In a study published in May, researchers at King’s College in London did brain
scans of people playing the gambling game used in the University of Iowa study.
Several brain regions were particularly active, including the orbitofrontal
cortex, which is involved in decision making, and the insula, where the brain is
thought to register the diverse sensations coming from around the body and
interpret them as a cohesive feeling — that cooling sensation of danger. In some
brains, the alarm appears to sound earlier, and perhaps more intensely, than
Gut feelings about potential threats or opportunities are not always correct,
and neuroscientists debate the conditions under which the feeling precedes the
conscious awareness of the clues themselves. But the system evolved for
survival, and, in some people, is apparently exquisitely sensitive, the findings
Mastering the Fear
One thing did not quite fit on the morning of Sergeant Tierney’s patrol in
Mosul. The nine soldiers left the police station around 9 a.m., but they did not
get their usual greeting. No one shot at them or fired a rocket-propelled
grenade. Minutes passed, and nothing.
The soldiers walked the road in an odd silence, scanning the landscape for
evidence of I.E.D.’s and trying to stay alert for an attack from insurgents. In
war, anxiety can run as high as the Iraqi heat, and neuroscientists say that the
most perceptive, observant brain on earth will not pick up subtle clues if it is
overwhelmed by stress.
In the Army study of I.E.D. detection, researchers found that troops who were
good at spotting bombs in simulations tended to think of themselves as
predators, not prey. That frame of mind by itself may work to reduce anxiety,
The brains of elite troops also appear to register perceived threats in a
different way from the average enlistee, said Dr. Martin P. Paulus, a
psychiatrist at the University of California, San Diego, and the V.A. San Diego
Healthcare System. At the sight of angry faces, members of the Navy Seals show
significantly higher activation in the insula than regular soldiers, according
to a just-completed study.
“The big question is whether these differences perceiving threat are natural, or
due to training,” Dr. Paulus said.
That morning in Mosul, Sergeant Tierney gave the command to fall back. The
soldier who had asked to approach the car had just time enough to turn before
the bomb exploded. Shrapnel clawed the side of his face; the shock wave threw
the others to the ground. The two young boys were gone: killed in the blast,
almost certainly, he said.
Since then, Sergeant Tierney has often run back the tape in his head, looking
for the detail that tipped him off. Maybe it was the angle of the car, or the
location; maybe the absence of an attack, the sleepiness in the market: perhaps
the sum of all of the above.
“I can’t point to one thing,” he said. “I just had that feeling you have when
you walk out of the house and know you forgot something — you got your keys,
it’s not that — and need a few moments to figure out what it is.”
He added, “I feel very fortunate none of my men were killed or badly wounded.”
In Battle, Hunches Prove
to Be Valuable Assets, NYT, 28.7.2009,
Biden Warns of More ‘Sacrifice’
July 24, 2009
The New York Times
By ALAN COWELL
LONDON — Entering a debate that has stirred political tumult
in Britain, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. said in an interview broadcast
Thursday that more coalition troops will die in Afghanistan but the war was
“worth the effort.”
Speaking during a tour of Ukraine and Georgia, Mr. Biden told the BBC that the
lawless region along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border was “a place that, if it
doesn’t get straightened out, will continue to wreak havoc on Europe and the
His remarks have a particular resonance here at a time when the American-led
coalition has recorded some of its worst casualties since the overthrow of the
Taliban regime in 2001.
Britain has some 9,000 soldiers in Afghanistan — the second biggest contingent
after the United States — and so far this month alone has lost 19 soldiers to
bring the total since 2001 to 188 — higher than the British death toll in the
Iraq war. The latest fatalities came Wednesday when bombs killed two United
States service members and one Briton in southern Afghanistan.
While some newspaper columnists have questioned the reasons for fighting the
war, Prime Minister Gordon Brown is locked in a dispute with the main opposition
leader, David Cameron, over the government’s track record in providing the right
equipment — particularly helicopters — to shield British soldiers from
increasingly deadly roadside bombs planted by the Taliban.
In the interview, Mr. Biden said that in terms of the national interest of
Britain, the United States and Europe, the war “is worth the effort we are
making and the sacrifice that is being felt.”
“And more will come,” he said, referring to the current phase of hostilities as
“the fighting season.” He did not comment specifically on the debate of British
He said that the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region was “the place from which
the attacks of 9/11 and all those attacks in Europe that came from Al Qaeda have
flowed, from that place between Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
He called British soldiers “among the best trained and bravest warriors in the
The debate over British troops’ access to helicopters sharpened Wednesday when a
Foreign Office minister, Lord Malloch Brown, told a newspaper interviewer that
“we definitely don’t have enough helicopters.”
But he withdrew the comment, apparently under pressure from the prime minister,
who has insisted that access to more helicopters would not have saved British
lives in the latest wave of fatalities. Mr. Brown’s critics argue that lives
would be saved if troops were transported by helicopter rather than by road,
where they are more vulnerable to attacks.
“In the operations we are doing at the moment, it is completely wrong to say
that the loss of lives has been caused by the absence of helicopters,” Mr. Brown
said Wednesday. “For the operations we are doing at the moment we have the
helicopters we need.”
The deaths coincide with a major American offensive, supported by British and
other troops, in Southern Helmand Province, a Taliban stronghold, in advance of
presidential elections next month.
On Monday, four American soldiers were killed by a roadside explosion in eastern
Afghanistan, making July the deadliest month for American service members in the
country since the 2001 invasion and underscoring the frightening rise in the
sophistication and accuracy of roadside bombs.
With the newest fatalities, more than 30 Americans have died in the first three
weeks of July, surpassing the highest previous monthly toll, 28, reached in June
Biden Warns of More
‘Sacrifice’ in Afghanistan, NYT, 24.7.2009,
A Deadly Month
for U.S. Troops in Afghanistan
July 21, 2009
The New York Times
By RICHARD A. OPPEL Jr.
KABUL, Afghanistan — Four American soldiers were killed by a roadside
explosion in eastern Afghanistan on Monday, making July the deadliest month for
American service members in the country since the 2001 invasion and underscoring
the frightening rise in the sophistication and accuracy of roadside bombs.
With the four newest fatalities, at least 30 Americans have died in the first
three weeks of July, surpassing the highest previous monthly toll, 28, reached
in June 2008.
Part of the reason for July’s sharply higher fatalities — for American troops
and for British and other NATO forces — is the three-week-old offensive in
opium-rich Helmand Province, where United States Marines and British soldiers
are trying to take control of areas dominated by the Taliban.
But the most significant factor is the increasing power of roadside bombs
employed by guerrillas in eastern and southern Afghanistan, including Helmand.
The bombs are generally not as powerful as the improvised explosive devices, or
I.E.D.’s, used by Iraqi guerrillas, who drew on huge stockpiles of artillery
shells the Pentagon left unguarded. In later years, Shiite insurgents also
employed explosively formed penetrators, a more precisely machined bomb that
launched a fist-size molten ball that could pierce the thickest armor.
By contrast, Afghan guerrillas have fewer tools at their disposal — yet the toll
of I.E.D. deaths continues to rise just as it did as the Iraqi insurgency grew
stronger in 2005.
Twenty-one American soldiers have died from I.E.D. blasts so far this month,
according to data recorded by icasualties.org, which tracks military deaths. Six
more Americans were killed by fire from Kalashnikovs or other guns, rockets,
mortar shells and rocket-propelled grenades. Two Air Force officers were killed
when their F-15E fighter jet crashed on Saturday, and a sailor died from
pneumonia earlier this month, according to the group’s Web site.
The military tallies do not include Afghan civilians regularly killed by
I.E.D.’s often intended for Western or Afghan forces. On Sunday at least 10
Afghan civilians died in Farah Province along the Iranian border when a minibus
and truck were struck by two hidden bombs, authorities said. “The Taliban are
planting mines on roads in which both officials and civilians are traveling, but
often civilians are the victims,” said Lt. Col. Juma Khan, an Afghan commander
Taliban fighters do have access to mortar shells and military munitions, but
many bombs are made from rudimentary ingredients like fertilizer and diesel
fuel. Such bombs are less effective, but with enough fertilizer and diesel,
Afghan guerrillas have shown they can destroy almost anything American forces
operate in the rugged countryside.
And the Taliban exploit environmental factors: Afghanistan has few paved roads,
making it easier for insurgents to bury bombs with no trace. Moreover, the new
mine-resistant vehicles effective at protecting troops from I.E.D.’s in Iraq
have struggled on Afghanistan’s uneven and craggy landscape. The Pentagon is
developing a lighter and less cumbersome version.
Even before Monday’s American fatalities crossed a new threshold, July had
already become the deadliest month for the entire NATO-led coalition: At least
56 coalition troops have died this month, surpassing the previous high of 46
recorded in June and August 2008, according to icasualties.org. Two out of every
three coalition deaths in July have been from I.E.D.’s.
The British military has lost 17 soldiers this month, all but one in Helmand
Province. Lt. Col. Rupert Thorneloe, the 39-year-old commander of the First
Battalion of the Welsh Guards, was killed by an I.E.D. on July 1, the most
senior British commander to die in battle since the Falklands war.
Taimoor Shah contributed reporting from Kandahar.
A Deadly Month for U.S.
Troops in Afghanistan, NYT, 21.7.2009,
Pentagon Seeks Prison Overhaul
July 20, 2009
The New York Times
By ERIC SCHMITT
BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan — A sweeping United States military review calls
for overhauling the troubled American-run prison here as well as the entire
Afghan jail and judicial systems, a reaction to worries that abuses and militant
recruiting within the prisons are helping to strengthen the Taliban.
In a further sign of high-level concern over detention practices, Adm. Mike
Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sent a confidential message
last week to all of the military service chiefs and senior field commanders
asking them to redouble their efforts to alert troops to the importance of
treating detainees properly.
The prison at this air base north of Kabul has become an ominous symbol for
Afghans — a place where harsh interrogation methods and sleep deprivation were
used routinely in its early years, and where two Afghan detainees died in 2002
after being beaten by American soldiers and hung by their arms from the ceiling
of isolation cells.
Bagram also became a holding site for terrorism suspects captured outside
Afghanistan and Iraq.
But even as treatment at Bagram improved in recent years, conditions worsened in
the larger Afghan-run prison network, which houses more than 15,000 detainees at
three dozen overcrowded and often violent sites. The country’s deeply flawed
judicial system affords prisoners virtually no legal protections, human rights
“Throughout Afghanistan, Afghans are arbitrarily detained by police,
prosecutors, judges and detention center officials with alarming regularity,”
the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan said in a report in
To help address these problems, Maj. Gen. Douglas M. Stone of the Marines,
credited with successfully revamping American detention practices in Iraq, was
assigned to review all detention issues in Afghanistan.
General Stone’s report, which has not been made public but is circulating among
senior American officials, recommends separating extremist militants from more
moderate detainees instead of having them mixed together as they are now,
according to two American officials who have read or been briefed on his report.
Under the new approach, the United States would help build and finance a new
Afghan-run prison for the hard-core extremists who are now using the poorly run
Afghan corrections system as a camp to train petty thieves and other common
criminals to be deadly militants, the American officials said.
The remaining inmates would be taught vocational skills and offered other
classes, and they would be taught about moderate Islam with the aim of
reintegrating them into society, said the officials, who spoke on condition of
anonymity because the review’s findings had not been publicly disclosed. The
review also presses for training new Afghan prison guards, prosecutors and
The recommendations come as American officials express fears that the
notoriously overcrowded Afghan-run prisons will be overwhelmed by waves of new
prisoners captured in the American-led offensive in southern Afghanistan, where
thousands of Marines are battling Taliban fighters.
President Obama signed an executive order in January to review policy options
for detention, interrogation and rendition.
The Defense and Justice Departments are leading two government task forces
studying those issues and are scheduled to deliver reports to the president on
But administration officials said Sunday that the task forces — which are
grappling with questions like whether terrorism suspects should be turned over
to other countries and how to deal with detainees who are thought to be
dangerous but who cannot be brought to trial — were likely to seek extensions on
some contentious issues.
Last month The Wall Street Journal reported elements of General Stone’s review,
but in recent days American military officials provided a more detailed
description of the report’s scope, findings and recommendations.
A spokesman for the Afghan Embassy in Washington, Martin Austermuhle, said he
was unaware of the review, and did not know if the government in Kabul had been
apprised of it.
Admiral Mullen felt compelled to issue his message last week after viewing
photographs documenting abuse of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan by American
military personnel in the early years of the wars there, a senior military
Mr. Obama decided in May not to make the photographs public, warning that the
images could ignite a deadly backlash against American troops.
The admiral urged top American field commanders to step up their efforts to
ensure that prisoners were treated properly both at the point of capture and in
He told the service chiefs to emphasize detainee treatment when preparing and
training troops who deploy to the Middle East and Southwest Asia.
“It is essential to who we are as a fighting force that we get this right,”
Admiral Mullen said in the message. “We are better than what I saw in those
American officials say many of the changes that General Stone’s review
recommends for Bagram are already in the works as part of the scheduled opening
this fall of a 40-acre replacement complex that officials say will accommodate
about 600 detainees in a more modern and humane setting.
The problems at the existing American-run prison, the Bagram Theater Internment
Facility, have been well documented.
The prison is a converted aircraft hangar that still holds some of the decrepit
aircraft-repair machinery left by the Soviet troops who occupied the country in
Military personnel who know Bagram and the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba,
describe the Afghan site as tougher and more spartan.
The prisoners have fewer privileges and virtually no access to lawyers or the
judicial process. Many are still held communally in big cages.
In the past two weeks, prisoners have refused to leave their cells to protest
their indefinite imprisonment.
In 2005, the Bush administration began trying to scale back American involvement
in detention operations in Afghanistan, mainly by transferring Bagram prisoners
to an American-financed high-security prison outside of Kabul guarded by
American-trained Afghan soldiers.
But United States officials conceded that the new Afghan block, at Pul-i-Charkhi
prison, could not absorb all the Bagram prisoners. It now holds about 4,300
detainees, including some 360 from Bagram or Guantánamo Bay, Afghan prison
Officials from the general directorate for prisons complained about the lack of
detention space based on international standards in provinces of Afghanistan.
They said most of those prisons were rented houses and not suitable for
Gen. Safiullah Safi, commander of the Afghan National Army brigade responsible
for the section of Pul-i-Charkhi that holds the transferred inmates from Bagram
and Guantánamo Bay, said his part of the prison had maintained good order and
followed Islamic cultural customs.
But last December, detainees in the other blocks of the prison staged a revolt
in an attempt to resist a security sweep for hidden weapons and cellphones.
Eight inmates died.
“There’s a general concern that the Afghan national prisons need to be
rehabilitated,” said Sahr MuhammedAlly, a senior associate for law and security
at Human Rights First, an advocacy group that is to issue its own report on
Bagram on Wednesday.
Abdul Waheed Wafa contributed reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan.
Pentagon Seeks Prison
Overhaul in Afghanistan, NYT, 20.9.2009,
As wars' death toll nears 5,000,
Dover shows quiet dignity
19 July 2009
By Rick Hampson
DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. — Tonight, as always, the passengers stop talking
when the van makes a sharp left on the tarmac and rolls toward the rear hatch of
the C-17 transport. Now they see its cargo: two gleaming, 7-foot-long aluminum
cases, each covered with an American flag.
Aaron Fairbairn, 20, and Justin Casillas, 19, who met at Army basic training
last year in Georgia and died together this Fourth of July in Afghanistan, rest
side by side on a lonely runway under a nearly full moon.
Aaron's half-brother, Beau Beck, is in the van with other members of the two
privates' families. They have traveled across the continent to witness one of
war's rawest moments — the return of the fallen to native soil.
Since hearing the news, Beck has half-believed there had been a mistake, that
Aaron wasn't really killed in a Taliban attack. But now, seeing the cases, he
almost gasps. This was the kid to whom he'd spoken on the phone 72 hours ago.
"At first you don't want to believe it," he said. "You think, 'It's not true,
it's not true.' But that sight made it true. It was final."
The nation is approaching a combined total of 5,000 military deaths in Iraq,
where the pace of U.S. casualties is declining, and in Afghanistan, where it is
rising. All the remains have come through this air base, site of the nation's
Since April, journalists have been permitted to cover what the military calls
"dignified transfers" of bodies from incoming flights to the mortuary. And, in a
less-publicized change at the same time, the government began to pay for
relatives' travel here for such arrivals.
News organizations' interest or ability to cover routine transfers quickly
faded; only the Associated Press regularly assigns a photographer.
But relatives — who previously were not encouraged by the military to attend the
arrivals and rarely did — now are coming to more than 70% of them.
On one level, the families' presence has changed nothing.
Each transfer is carried out with the same exacting choreography, regardless of
who's watching. But in feel, if not form, their presence changes everything.
His brother's homecoming was the toughest sight of Beau Beck's 32 years, but
he's glad he was there.
"There was this overwhelming sense of honor and respect. You didn't have to know
those two kids on the flight line to feel that," Beck says.
The blue van pulls up behind the transport plane, 25 feet off the tail. To the
left, through the tinted windows, the soldiers' relatives can see a few
journalists standing on the tarmac.
Because the families will watch while standing on the other side of the van, the
journalists can't see them.
Fairbairn's mother and sister would decline to discuss the transfer, and efforts
to reach Casilla's relatives for comment were unsuccessful. Beau Beck later
agreed to talk, explaining, "It was terrible, but it was amazing."
'The Dover Test'
During the Vietnam War, images of flag-draped cases arriving at Dover (and
Travis Air Force Base in California, until 2001 the military's other domestic
mortuary) symbolized the war's terrible cost.
After Vietnam, American leaders contemplating military action began referring to
"the Dover Test:" How would Americans react to those grim sights on the air and
During the Gulf War, the first Bush administration prohibited news media
coverage of returning casualties, supposedly in the interest of privacy. When
the policy continued during the Iraq war, critics cried coverup.In 2004, Joe
Biden, then a senator from Delaware, said the fallen "are essentially snuck back
into the country under the cover of night, so no one can see that their casket
This year the Obama administration re-opened the arrivals to journalists,
provided families approve. (About seven in 10 have.)
Defense Secretary Robert Gates had expressed concern that if the news media
covered transfers at Dover, relatives would feel compelled to attend — a
financial hardship for some who lived far away. So his department decided to pay
and help arrange travel, food and lodging for up to three people per family.
Beck was surprised by the offer, which he and his family quickly accepted.
To his right tonight on the tarmac is a white truck, waiting to move the
transfer cases to the base mortuary. Beck thinks it looks like a bread truck.
Seven members of an Army ceremonial unit — six bearers and a team leader — march
past him and up a ramp into the hold of the huge steel-gray aircraft.
They're joined by a chaplain, an Air Force colonel and an Army brigadier general
from the Pentagon, Francis Mahon.
Mahon is director of the Army's Quadrennial Defense Review — a big-picture guy,
who works far from the battlefield.
He's there because the Army chief of staff has ordered that a general officer be
present for the arrival of every soldier's remains.
"This reminds you there are lives at the end of decisions," Mahon says.
"Everything you do affects a soldier."
In 30 years in the Army, Mahon has seen a lot of pomp — 21-gun salutes, Taps,
flag presentations. This is different.
It's not a ceremony, in military terminology, but a "dignified transfer."
The remains are not in coffins but "cases." They are escorted not by an honor
guard, but a "carry team."
Everything is functional — no speeches, music or dress blues. The carry team
wears camouflage fatigues, combat boots, black berets and, in one concession to
ceremony, white gloves.
That, Beck thinks, is what makes this so powerful — it's so real.
'America cares deeply'
In the cargo hold, a chaplain, Maj. Klavens Noel, reads a prayer over the bodies
of Fairbairn and Casillas, which have come from Afghanistan via Kuwait and
Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany.
The families cannot hear but see heads bent in prayer as Noel begins: "Almighty
God, we thank you for the freedom we enjoy in our nation as we welcome Privates
Casillas and Fairbairn home this evening. We pray that they may rest in peace.
We pray for their family members, that they may find comfort in knowing that
America cares deeply. We pray for their comrades on the battlefield ..."
Time to move the cases. First is Casillas, a former high school football lineman
from Dunnigan, Calif., who always played bigger than his 175 pounds, and played
hurt if he had to.
Friends and former teachers recall the teen's patriotism — he hung a flag in his
room — and passion for the military.
A month before he left for Afghanistan, he dropped by his high school. His
coach, Roy Perkins, said he thought it was good to see someone achieve what he'd
Packed with ice, his case weighs about 400 pounds. The team leader calls,
"Ready, lift" and the team members, facing each other, grasp the case. On
"Ready, up" they straighten, lifting it. On "Ready, face," three soldiers do a
left face, the other three a right face. Now all are facing toward the tail and
out into the night, toward the bread truck, whose doors are open, waiting.
On "Ready, step" the team moves forward toward the ramp.
On the ground, the colonel says "Present, arms!" His voice is low, crisp. Each
military servicemember slowly lifts a right arm in salute — three seconds up —
and holds it as the team carries the case 46 steps across the tarmac to the
Their pace is exaggeratedly — almost agonizingly — slow.
The families stand behind a rope line, like outside a nightclub. They've been
told not to try to come forward to touch the case. But they never take their
eyes off it.
This is the moment in the transfer when knees buckle and hearts flutter, when
children wail and mothers scream. Tonight, there are racking sobs — "the sounds
that ring in my nights," says David Sparks, a military chaplain standing with
Most of the relatives, he says, arrive on the flight line still in shock:
"Someone's come to the door and told them something, but they don't really
believe it until they see for themselves." They haven't even begun to grieve, so
he doesn't go much beyond a greeting, a hug and, 'I'm so very sorry.' "
As the carry team approaches the truck, they stop, march in place, turn toward
each other and, on the command, "Ready, step!" push the case forward into the
truck and onto its metal rollers, which make a clanging sound as the case moves
At the command, "Order, arms" salutes are lowered — three seconds down.
The team takes six steps back, does an about face and marches back to the plane
for the second case — Aaron's.
'Always with a smile'
Aaron Fairbairn joined the Army because he wanted to make a difference, because
he wanted to learn a skill and because he didn't really have any better options.
"He was just a nice kid — hard-working, fun-loving, always with a smile," Beck
says. Because he was 12 years older and Aaron's biological father was "out of
the picture," Beck says he felt as much like the kid's dad as his brother.
Aaron had drifted a bit after high school, working at a pizza shop and a car
dealership. When Aaron told him he planned to enlist, Beck was surprised and
unenthusiastic: It was wartime.
"He wasn't gung-ho," Beck recalls. "He was a pretty peaceful kid. He didn't want
to fight unless he had to. He just wanted to do his job. ... He'd do what you
told him to do, and he wouldn't show a lot of emotion."
Aaron left for Afghanistan in March and wound up at a combat post in the eastern
province of Paktika. Except for one mission early on, he told his family that
military life consisted mostly of post duty, watching videos they'd sent him and
working out. He was never athletic but had bulked up to 155 pounds from his
induction weight of 115, and boasted of bench-pressing 275 pounds.
Beck got a call from Aaron late Friday afternoon, July 3. Things were quiet; the
action was down south, in Helmand province, where the Marines were on the march.
If anything, he was a little bored.
Later that day, the Taliban attacked.
Saturday morning, an Army chaplain and sergeant were on his mother's porch in
Aberdeen, Wash. When she saw them standing there, Shelley Masters thought that
because it was Independence Day, maybe they were there to raise funds or
That night she, Beau and her 21-year-old daughter, Sascha, took the red-eye to
When the last case is placed in the bread truck, Senior Airman Joseph Holton
must close the truck's door — given its symbolism, the most sensitive part of
Transfer detail team members are selected by their predecessors, after watching
them perform a test drill. Holton and another airman were chosen from a group of
He must make unnaturally slow movements look natural, even though the tendency
is to speed up — especially with the families and the news media watching, and
his adrenaline pumping.
So as he walks, Holton later explains, he paces himself by counting in his head.
He times his steps to his breathing — inhale on heel down, exhale on heel up. He
moves so deliberately as to seem to extend time itself.
Without appearing to, Holton must brace for the unforeseen, such as a gust of
wind that could blow the door shut.
He tries to block out anything that might distract him from the precise
execution of his otherwise workaday task, including the families. Recently, a
mother fell to the tarmac, pounding the ground and screaming, "Don't close the
Holton tries not to look, but he sees the relatives when he does a left face to
close the left door and a right face to close the right door.
Finally, the doors are closed. When the driver turns the ignition, the colonel
orders, "Present arms" to signal a final salute. The truck rolls forward. At
"Order arms" the salutes are lowered.
The truck rolls slowly off to the mortuary, where the bodies will be scanned for
explosives, checked for personal effects, positively identified, autopsied,
embalmed, dressed in a blue Class A dress uniform bearing the Purple Heart,
Bronze Star, Combat Infantry Badge and airborne wings, and placed in a steel
Back on the tarmac, Aaron Fairbairn's mother, brother and sister form a tight
circle, hugging and sobbing. Their soldier is home.
Toll of Iraq, Afghanistan wars
Milestones in the combined U.S. death tolls for the wars in Iraq and
Death Milestones Iraq death toll Afghanistan death toll
1,000 deaths/ July 24, 2004 909 91
2,000/ Aug. 8, 2005 1,832 171
3,000/ Oct. 4, 2006 2,729 271
4,000/ Aug. 5, 2007 3,654 348
4,996/ Friday 4,328 668
Source: Defense Department
Contributing: Paul Overberg
As wars' death toll
nears 5,000, Dover shows quiet dignity, UT, 19.7.2009,
Vets’ Mental Health Diagnoses Rising
July 17, 2009
The New York Times
By JAMES DAO
A new study has found that more than one-third of Iraq and Afghanistan war
veterans who enrolled in the veterans health system after 2001 received a
diagnosis of a mental health problem, most often post-traumatic stress disorder
The study by researchers at the San Francisco Department of Veterans Affairs
Medical Center and the University of California, San Francisco, also found that
the number of veterans found to have mental health problems rose steadily the
longer they were out of the service.
The study, released Thursday, was based on the department health records of
289,328 veterans involved in the two wars who used the veterans health system
for the first time from April 1, 2002, to April 1, 2008.
The researchers found that 37 percent of those people received mental health
diagnoses. Of those, the diagnosis for 22 percent was post-traumatic stress
disorder, or PTSD, for 17 percent it was depression and for 7 percent it was
alcohol abuse. One-third of the people with mental health diagnoses had three or
more problems, the study found.
The increase in diagnoses accelerated after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the
researchers found. Among the group of veterans who enrolled in veterans health
services during the first three months of 2004, 14.6 percent received mental
health diagnoses after one year. But after four years, the number had nearly
doubled, to 27.5 percent.
The study’s principal author, Dr. Karen H. Seal, attributed the rising number of
diagnoses to several factors: repeat deployments; the perilous and confusing
nature of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, where there are no defined front lines;
growing public awareness of PTSD; unsteady public support for the wars; and
reduced troop morale.
Dr. Seal said the study also underscored that it can take years for PTSD to
develop. “The longer we can work with a veteran in the system, the more likely
there will be more diagnoses over time,” said Dr. Seal, who is co-director of
the mental health clinic for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans at the San Francisco
veterans medical center.
The new report joins a growing body of research showing that the prolonged
conflicts, where many troops experience long and repeat deployments, are taking
an accumulating psychological toll.
A telephone survey by the RAND Corporation last year of 1,965 people who had
been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan found that 14 percent screened positive for
PTSD and 14 percent for major depression. Those rates are considerably higher
than for the general public.
“The study provides more insight as to just how stressed our force and families
are after years of war and multiple deployments,” said René A. Campos, deputy
director of government relations for the Military Officers Association of
America. “Our troops and families need more time at home — more dwell time,
fewer and less frequent deployments.”
The study was posted Thursday on the Web site of The American Journal of Public
Dr. Seal cautioned that, unlike the RAND study, the results from her research
could not be extrapolated to the roughly 1.6 million veterans who have served in
Iraq or Afghanistan because about 60 percent of them were not receiving health
care through the veterans system.
But she noted that the number of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans receiving
care through the veterans system was at a historic high, 40 percent, potentially
making the study’s results more universal.
The study also found that veterans older than 40 with the National Guard or the
Reserves were more likely to develop PTSD and substance abuse disorders than
those under 25. A possible reason, Dr. Seal said, is that older reservists go to
war from established civilian lives, with families and full-time jobs, making
combat trauma potentially more difficult to absorb.
“It’s the disparity between their lives at home, which they are settled in, and
suddenly, without much training, being dropped into this situation,” she said.
In contrast, the study found that among active-duty troops, veterans under 25
were more likely to develop PTSD and substance abuse problems than those over
40, possibly because those younger troops were more likely to have been involved
in front-line combat, Dr. Seal said.
Vets’ Mental Health
Diagnoses Rising, NYT, 17.7.2009,
Afghan War’s Buried Bombs
Put Risk in Every Step
July 15, 2009
The New York Times
By JAMES DAO
FORWARD OPERATING BASE ALTIMUR, Afghanistan — The call came just after
dinner: a pickup truck carrying Afghan national police officers had hit a buried
bomb, and all five officers inside were dead.
When First Lt. James Brown and his team of bomb investigators arrived at the
shredded remains of the truck, the grim significance of the attack became clear.
One of the dead was a hard-charging commander who, more than any officer in this
restive district of Logar Province, had helped fight a shadowy network of local
“If he wasn’t trying so hard, if he was taking bribes, taking naps, he’d be
alive right now,” Lieutenant Brown said of the commander, Gul Alam.
This is the war in Afghanistan today, where death is measured less by the
accuracy of bullets than by the cleverness of bombs. And though the Afghan
insurgency’s improvised explosive devices, or I.E.D.’s, are less powerful or
complex than those used in Iraq, they are becoming more common and more
sophisticated with each week, American military officers say.
This year, bomb attacks on coalition troops in Afghanistan have spiked to an
all-time high, with 465 in May alone, more than double the number in the same
month two years before. At least 46 American troops have been killed by I.E.D.’s
this year, putting 2009 on track to set a record in the eight-year war.
I.E.D.’s have been even more deadly for Afghan police officers and soldiers. At
the current rate, I.E.D. attacks on Afghan forces could reach 6,000 this year,
up from 81 in 2003, an American military official said. In early July alone,
nine Afghan police officers were killed in two bomb attacks in Logar Province,
south of Kabul.
With few paved roads, Afghanistan is even more fertile territory for I.E.D.’s.
than Iraq, where hard pavement often forced insurgents to leave bombs in the
open. Not so in Afghanistan, where it is relatively easy to bury a device in a
dirt road and cover the tracks.
Even when I.E.D.’s do not wound or kill troops, the threat restricts and
complicates the movements of coalition forces.
American convoys often must wait for bomb-detection teams that move at three
miles per hour. Helicopters are limited, and most troops travel in
mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles known as MRAPs, which are lumbering
and hard to maneuver. Though heavily armored MRAPs are effective in shielding
soldiers from explosions, two turret gunners died recently when one flipped over
after hitting I.E.D.’s.
Acknowledging that the I.E.D. has become perhaps its central military problem in
Afghanistan, the Pentagon is sending thousands of MRAPs to Afghanistan and is
developing a lighter, more maneuverable version. It has deployed robots, dogs
and drones to detect and dispose of bombs.
It has also begun a campaign to attack the bomb-making networks that operate in
small cells around the country.
At the heart of that effort are teams like Lieutenant Brown’s that, with the
help of explosives experts and criminal investigators, compile and analyze
forensic information on almost every bomb encountered and every suspect
“I’m not interested in the triggerman,” said Lieutenant Brown, whose team is
with the Third Squadron, 71st Cavalry Regiment based here. “He’s usually some
poor schlep just trying to feed his family. It’s the networks we’re after.”
American officials say those Taliban-guided networks are surprisingly layered,
involving financiers, logistical experts, bomb designers and trainers. At the
bottom are the bomb planters, often villagers or nomadic herdsmen paid $10 or
less to dig holes and serve as spotters.
The bombs are often made with fertilizer and diesel fuel, but some use mortar
shells or old mines that litter the countryside. Some bombs are set off when
vehicles pass over pressure plates. Others require remote control, like a
cellphone. Still others detonate with a button or a wire touched to a battery.
Though many bombs remain crude, American officers say the insurgents are cunning
and relentlessly adaptive. In some cases, I.E.D.’s are used as lures to draw
soldiers into booby traps.
“It’s not like Iraq,” said Tech Sgt. Richard Gibbons of the Air Force, the team
expert in disarming and disposing of explosives, recalling complex situations
involving four or more bombs in Baghdad. “But I do think they are getting
Like a police forensic unit and a bomb squad rolled into one, Lieutenant Brown’s
25-member team not only disarms I.E.D.’s but also scours sites — more than 50
this year — for telltale signatures of a bomb. Soil samples, electrical parts,
fingerprints and photographs are sent for analysis, and detailed reports are
compiled in a central database.
American officials say the work has helped dismantle at least one network,
pinpointed others and improved safety for convoys. But as the death of Mr. Alam
underscores, the effort is one step forward, one step back.
The American strategy calls for using the Afghan police to gather intelligence,
arrest people suspected of being bombers and project a sense of government
competence. So far, many Afghan police units have not risen to the challenge,
American officers complain.
Mr. Alam was different. A father in his late 30s, he was known as an ebullient,
bold, sometimes reckless fighter. He once tried to dismantle an I.E.D. made from
an old mine with his bare hands.
“Not proper procedure, but it showed initiative,” Lieutenant Brown said.
Mr. Alam was the commander of a checkpoint near the border of the Charkh and
Baraki Barak districts, a stronghold of Taliban supporters. When more than 1,200
soldiers with the Third Combat Brigade, 10th Mountain Division flowed into the
province early this year, there were scattered firefights, but the insurgents
mostly melted into the landscape.
And then the I.E.D. attacks multiplied. After seeing two bombs in the area in
May, American forces found or exploded 17 I.E.D.’s in June, most along an
important connector they call Route New York.
Still, Lieutenant Brown’s team felt it was making headway. In recent weeks,
American forces killed two men planting a bomb, detained one suspected of being
a triggerman and uncovered a cache of weapons and bomb-making materials.
Mr. Alam helped, and so became a target. Following a weekly routine, he spent a
recent Saturday with his family at home north of Kabul and was returning to his
checkpoint that afternoon when the bomb exploded under his truck, dead center.
After the explosion, Lieutenant Brown, 31, gathered his team in their office,
its plywood walls decorated with handmade farming tools found at bomb sites.
Bowing his head, he asked for a moment of silence for Mr. Alam.
“The guy was never in a bad mood,” Lieutenant Brown recalled later. “I don’t
know how that is possible given his job.”
Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington, Andrew W. Lehren from New
York, and Ruhullah Khapalwak from Kabul, Afghanistan.
Afghan War’s Buried
Bombs Put Risk in Every Step, NYT, 15.7.2009,
Taliban Confirms Capture of US Soldier
July 6, 2009
Filed at 10:38 a.m. ET
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
The New York Times
CAIRO (AP) -- The Taliban confirmed on its Web site that it is holding an
American soldier that the U.S. military had earlier described as possibly being
in enemy hands.
The report of the capture was last in a routine list of Taliban activities
posted on the Web site.
"It is to be said that five days ago, a drunken American soldier who had come
out of his garrison named Malakh, was captured by mujahedeen... He is still with
mujahedeen," said the report.
The short message did not elaborate on his whereabouts or their plans for him,
nor did it provide any proof of its claim.
The U.S. military earlier said it had intercepted communications in which
insurgents talked about holding an American.
The soldier was noticed missing during a routine check of the unit on Tuesday
and first was listed as "duty status whereabouts unknown."
His body armor and weapon were found on the base.
It was not until Thursday that officials said publicly that he was missing and
described him as "believed captured." Details of such incidents are routinely
held very tightly by the military as it works to retrieve a missing or captured
soldier without giving away any information to captors.
Two U.S. defense sources said the soldier "just walked off" post with three
Afghans after he finished working. They said they had no explanation for why he
left the base.
Taliban Confirms Capture
of US Soldier, NYT, 6.7.2009,
U.S. Faces Resentment
in Afghan Region
July 3, 2009
The New York Times
By CARLOTTA GALL
LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan — The mood of the Afghan people has tipped into a
popular revolt in some parts of southern Afghanistan, presenting incoming
American forces with an even harder job than expected in reversing military
losses to the Taliban and winning over the population.
Villagers in some districts have taken up arms against foreign troops to protect
their homes or in anger after losing relatives in airstrikes, several community
representatives interviewed said. Others have been moved to join the insurgents
out of poverty or simply because the Taliban’s influence is so pervasive here.
On Thursday morning, 4,000 American Marines began a major offensive to try to
take back the region from the strongest Taliban insurgency in the country. The
Marines are part of a larger deployment of additional troops being ordered by
the new American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, to
concentrate not just on killing Taliban fighters but on protecting the
Yet Taliban control of the countryside is so extensive in provinces like
Kandahar and Helmand that winning districts back will involve tough fighting and
may ignite further tensions, residents and local officials warn. The government
has no presence in 5 of Helmand’s 13 districts, and in several others, like
Nawa, it holds only the district town, where troops and officials live virtually
The Taliban’s influence is so strong in rural areas that much of the local
population has accepted their rule and is watching the United States troop
buildup with trepidation. Villagers interviewed in late June said that they
preferred to be left alone under Taliban rule and complained about artillery
fire and airstrikes by foreign forces.
“We Muslims don’t like them — they are the source of danger,” said a local
villager, Hajji Taj Muhammad, of the foreign forces. His house in Marja, a town
west of this provincial capital that has been a major opium trading post and
Taliban base, was bombed two months ago, he said.
The southern provinces have suffered the worst civilian casualties since NATO’s
deployment to the region in 2006. Thousands of people have already been
displaced by fighting and taken refuge in the towns.
“Now there are more people siding with the Taliban than with the government,”
said Abdul Qadir Noorzai, head of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission
in southern Afghanistan.
In many places, people have never seen or felt the presence of the Afghan
government, or foreign forces, except through violence, but the Taliban are a
known quantity, community leaders said.
“People are hostages of the Taliban, but they look at the coalition also as the
enemy, because they have not seen anything good from them in seven or eight
years,” said Hajji Abdul Ahad Helmandwal, a district council leader from Nadali
in Helmand Province.
Foreign troops continue to make mistakes that enrage whole sections of this
deeply tribal society, like the killing of a tribal elder’s son and his wife as
they were driving to their home in Helmand two months ago. Only their baby
daughter survived. The tribal elder, Reis-e-Baghran, a former member of the
Taliban who reconciled with the government, is one of the most influential
figures in Helmand.
The infusion of more American troops into southern Afghanistan is aimed at
ending a stalemate between NATO and Taliban forces. The governor of Helmand,
Gulab Mangal, said extra forces were needed since the Taliban were now so
entrenched in the region that they had permanent bases.
Last year an American Marine Expeditionary Unit of 2,400 men secured a small but
critical area in the district of Garmser in southern Helmand, choking off
Taliban supply routes from the Pakistani border while reopening the town for
commerce. The operation had a crippling effect on Taliban forces operating
farther north in neighboring Oruzgan Province, according to Jelani Popal, who
oversees local affairs for President Hamid Karzai’s government.
This year military officials hope to replicate that operation in more places,
according to Lt. Gen. James Dutton, the British deputy commander of NATO forces
The extra forces will be critical to create confidence among the locals and
persuade insurgents to give up the fight, said Mr. Mangal, the Helmand governor.
Yet he and others warn that there will be more bloodshed and that the large
influx of foreign forces could prompt a backlash.
In parts of Helmand and Kandahar, resentment and frustration are rampant. People
who traveled to Lashkar Gah from the districts complained of continued civilian
suffering and questioned American intentions. “They come here just to fight, not
to bring peace,” said Allah Nazad, a farmer.
People from Marja said that foreign troops carrying out counternarcotics
operations conducted nighttime raids on houses, sometimes killed people inside
their homes, and used dogs that bit the occupants.
“The people are very scared of the night raids,” said Spin Gul, a local farmer.
“When they have night raids, the people join the Taliban and fight.”
“Who are the Taliban? They are local people,” interjected another man, who did
not give his name. One man, Hamza, said he would fight if foreigners raided his
house. “I will not allow them,” he said. “I will fight them to the last drop of
Many do not side with the Taliban out of choice, however, and could be won over,
community leaders said.
Fazel Muhammad, a member of the district council of Panjwai, an area west of
Kandahar, said he knew people who were laying mines for the Taliban in order to
feed their families. He estimated that 80 percent of insurgents were local
people driven to fight out of poverty and despair. Offered another way out, only
2 percent would support the Taliban, he said.
Yet mistrust of the government remains so strong that even if the Taliban were
defeated militarily, the government and the American-led coalition would find
the population reluctant to cooperate, said Hajji Abdullah Jan, the leader of
the provincial council of Helmand. “These people will still not trust the
government,” he said. “Even if security is 100 percent, it will take time
because the government did not keep its promises in the past.”
U.S. Faces Resentment in
Afghan Region, NYT, 3.7.2009,
in Suspected US Missile Strike
July 3, 2009
Filed at 1:27 a.m. ET
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
The New York Times
ISLAMABAD (AP) -- Pakistani intelligence officials say 11 people were killed
in a suspected U.S. missile strike in northwest Pakistan.
The two officials say the attack struck a suspected training facility of
Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud early Friday in the villages of Montoi
in South Waziristan. A suspected militant hide-out in Kokat Khel was also hit.
South Waziristan is part of the lawless tribal belt along Pakistan's border with
Afghanistan where top Taliban and al-Qaida leaders are believed to be hiding.
The officials said they received their information from agents on the ground.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized
to speak to the media.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's
earlier story is below.
ISLAMABAD (AP) -- Pakistani intelligence officials say suspected U.S. missiles
have hit a Taliban target in northwest Pakistan. There was no immediate word on
The two officials say the attack took place early Friday in South Waziristan.
The region is part of the lawless tribal belt along Pakistan's border with
Afghanistan where top Taliban and al-Qaida leaders are believed to be hiding.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized
to speak to the media.
11 Dead in Suspected US
Missile Strike in Pakistan, NYT, 3.7.2009,
U.S. Marines Try to Retake
Afghan Valley From Taliban
July 2, 2009
The New York Times
By RICHARD A. OPPEL Jr.
KABUL, Afghanistan — Almost 4,000 United States Marines, backed by helicopter
gunships, pushed into the volatile Helmand River valley in southwestern
Afghanistan early Thursday morning to try to take back the region from Taliban
fighters whose control of poppy harvests and opium smuggling in Helmand provides
major financing for the Afghan insurgency.
The Marine Expeditionary Brigade leading the operation represents a large number
of the 21,000 additional troops that President Obama ordered to Afghanistan
earlier this year amid rising violence and the Taliban’s increasing domination
in much of the country. The operation is described as the first major push in
southern Afghanistan by the newly bolstered American force.
Helmand is one of the deadliest provinces in Afghanistan, where Taliban fighters
have practiced sleek, hit-and-run guerrilla warfare against the British forces
British troops in Helmand say they rarely get a clear shot at Taliban attackers,
who ambush them with improvised explosive devices, rocket-propelled grenades and
assault rifles. The explosive devices — some made with fertilizer distributed to
Afghan farmers in an effort to wean them from opium production — are the most
feared weapon. The Taliban favor ambushes in the morning and evening and do not
often strike during the blazing afternoon heat.
In recent weeks some British troops have been setting up what are known as
“blocking positions” on bridges over irrigation canals and at other locations,
apparently to help stop the flow of insurgents during the main military
operation and to establish greater security before the presidential election
scheduled for August. The British forces, whose main base in Helmand is adjacent
to the main Marine base, will continue to support the new operation.
The British have had too few troops to conduct full-scale counterinsurgency
operations and have often relied on heavy aerial weapons, including bombs and
helicopter gunships, to attack suspected fighters and their hideouts. The
strategy has alienated much of the population because of the potential for
Now, the Marines say their new mission, called Operation Khanjar, will include
more troops and resources than ever before, as well as a commitment by the
troops to live and patrol near population centers to ensure that residents are
protected. More than 600 Afghan soldiers and police officers are also involved.
“What makes Operation Khanjar different from those that have occurred before is
the massive size of the force introduced, the speed at which it will insert, and
the fact that where we go we will stay, and where we stay, we will hold, build
and work toward transition of all security responsibilities to Afghan forces,”
the Marine commander in Helmand Province, Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, said in a
statement released after the operation began.
The Marines will be pushing into areas where NATO and Afghan troops have not
previously established a permanent presence. As part of the counterinsurgency
strategy, the troops will meet with local leaders, help determine their needs
and take a variety of actions to make towns and villages more secure, said Capt.
Bill Pelletier, a spokesman for the Marines, according to The Associated Press.
“We do not want people of Helmand Province to see us as an enemy; we want to
protect them from the enemy,” Captain Pelletier said, The A.P. reported.
The goal of the operation is to put pressure on the Taliban militants “and to
show our commitment to the Afghan people that when we come in we are going to
stay long enough to set up their own institutions,” he said.
The 21,000 additional American troops that Mr. Obama authorized after taking
office in January almost precisely matches the original number of additional
troops that President George W. Bush sent to Iraq two years ago. It will bring
the overall American deployment in Afghanistan to more than 60,000 troops. But
Mr. Obama avoided calling it a surge and resisted sending the full
reinforcements initially sought by military commanders.
Instead, Mr. Obama chose to re-evaluate troop levels over the next year,
officials said. The Obama administration has said that the additional American
commitment has three main strategies for denying havens for the Taliban and Al
Qaeda: training Afghan security forces, supporting the weak central Afghan
government in Kabul and securing the population.
In late March, Mr. Obama warned Congressional leaders that he would need more
than the $50 billion in his budget for military operations and development
Asked by lawmakers about the prospect of reconciliation with moderate members of
the Taliban, officials said Mr. Obama replied that he wanted to sift out
hard-core radicals from those who were fighting simply to earn money.
Eros Hoagland contributed reporting.
U.S. Marines Try to Retake Afghan
Valley From Taliban, NYT, 2.7.2009,