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History > 2009 > USA > War > Afghanistan (III)



Sixteen-month-old Aubrey Melton

reaches for her father, SSG Josh Melton,

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.


Scott Olson/Getty Images


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
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 not enough.

Adm. Mike Mullen on Sunday described the situation in Afghanistan as ''serious and deteriorating,'' but refused to say whether additional forces would be needed.

''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 reconstruction operations.

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 the complaints.

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 the Union.''


On the Net:

Defense Department: http://www.defenselink.mil/

    Afghanistan Poses Tough Choices for Obama, NYT, 24.8.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2009/08/24/us/politics/AP-US-US-Afghanistan.html






Mullen Issues Caution on Afghanistan


August 24, 2009
The New York Times


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 favoring it.

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 Afghanistan.

“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, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/24/world/asia/24mullen.html






Marines Fight Taliban

With Little Aid From Afghans


August 23, 2009
The New York Times


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 Afghan government.

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 anything.

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 them here.”

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 short periods.

“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 6,000-square-mile area.

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 materializing.

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, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/23/world/asia/23marines.html?hp






Could Afghanistan

Become Obama’s Vietnam?


August 23, 2009
The New York Times


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 L.B.J. risk.

“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 go wrong.”

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,” he said.

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 soldiers.

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 recourse.

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, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/23/weekinreview/23baker.html






Brain Power

In Battle,

Hunches Prove

to Be Valuable Assets


July 28, 2009
The New York Times


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 that morning.

“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 mock exercises.

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 threats.

“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 simulations.

“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 large.

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 average.

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 suggest.


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, experts say.

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, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/28/health/research/28brain.html?hp






Biden Warns of More ‘Sacrifice’

in Afghanistan


July 24, 2009
The New York Times


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 United States.”

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 equipment.

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 world.”

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 2008.

    Biden Warns of More ‘Sacrifice’ in Afghanistan, NYT, 24.7.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/24/world/europe/24afghan.html






A Deadly Month

for U.S. Troops in Afghanistan


July 21, 2009
The New York Times


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 in Farah.

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, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/21/world/asia/21afghan.html






Pentagon Seeks Prison Overhaul

in Afghanistan


July 20, 2009
The New York Times


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 advocates say.

“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 January.

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 judges.

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 Tuesday.

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 official said.

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 military prisons.

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 pictures.”

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 the 1980s.

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 said.

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 detention.

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, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/20/world/asia/20detain.html






As wars' death toll nears 5,000,

Dover shows quiet dignity


19 July 2009
USA Today
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 largest mortuary.

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 in print?

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 has arrived."

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 always wanted.

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 truck.

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 the families.

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 forward.

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 something.

That night she, Beau and her 21-year-old daughter, Sascha, took the red-eye to Philadelphia.


Final salute

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 the ritual.

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 40.

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 doors!"

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 casket.

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 Afghanistan:

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, http://www.usatoday.com/news/military/2009-07-19-wardead_N.htm






Vets’ Mental Health Diagnoses Rising


July 17, 2009
The New York Times


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 or depression.

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 Health.

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, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/17/health/views/17vets.html






Afghan War’s Buried Bombs

Put Risk in Every Step


July 15, 2009
The New York Times


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 bomb makers.

“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 detained.

“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 better.”

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, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/15/world/asia/15ied.html?hpw






Taliban Confirms Capture of US Soldier


July 6, 2009
Filed at 10:38 a.m. ET
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, http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2009/07/06/world/AP-Afghan-US-Soldier-Captured.html?hpw






U.S. Faces Resentment

in Afghan Region


July 3, 2009
The New York Times


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 population.

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 under siege.

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 in Afghanistan.

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 blood.”

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, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/03/world/asia/03helmand.html






11 Dead

in Suspected US Missile Strike

in Pakistan


July 3, 2009
Filed at 1:27 a.m. ET
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 casualties.

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, http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2009/07/03/world/AP-AS-Pakistan.html






U.S. Marines Try to Retake

Afghan Valley From Taliban


July 2, 2009
The New York Times


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 based there.

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 civilian deaths.

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 efforts.

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, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/02/world/asia/02afghan.html