afghanistan war

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Democracy Now! 2013-11-07 Thursday

Shortly after the U.S. military was forced to vacate a base in Afghanistan’s Wardak province this spring, the bodies of 10 Afghan villagers were found nearby. All of the people had disappeared after being detained by U.S. Special Forces. The base was used by a unit known as "The A-Team," which has also been linked to eight other murders in Wardak. The mystery behind the deaths is the center of a shocking new exposé which reports the disappearances and killings could amount to some of the gravest war crimes perpetrated by U.S. forces since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. We are joined by Matthieu Aikins, an award-winning investigative journalist based in Kabul who spent five months investigating the killings for his Rolling Stone article, "The A-Team Killings."

A video just posted online by Rolling Stone shows a hogtied prisoner being whipped by Afghan security forces, as what appears to be two unidentified American military officers look on. According to investigative reporter Matthieu Aikins, the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command confirmed an ongoing investigation into the incident. Aikins says the video fits with a general pattern of recurring abuse of detainees in U.S. and Afghan custody.

A new report says medical professionals working under U.S. military orders have been complicit in the abuse of terrorism suspects. The Task Force on Preserving Medical Professionalism concluded that medical staff who worked with the CIA and Pentagon "designed and participated in cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment and torture of detainees" at Guantánamo Bay and at secret prisons overseas. The two-year study cites doctors for breaching patient confidentiality and advising interrogators on how to exploit prisoners’ fears and crush their will to resist. The task force is calling for a full investigation of the medical profession’s role in U.S. torture and an overhaul to ensure doctors involved in interrogations follow ethical standards. Both the CIAand the Pentagon have rejected the report’s findings. We are joined by two guests: retired brigadier general Dr. Stephen Xenakis, a military psychiatrist who advised the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on military mental health issues; and by Leonard Rubenstein, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and co-author of the report, "Ethics Abandoned: Medical Professionalism and Detainee Abuse in the 'War on Terror.'"

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Why Americans Can't Remember Afghanistan

Tech. Sgt. Francisco V. Govea II, US Air Force/Wikimedia Commons

Will the US still be meddling in Afghanistan 30 years from now? If history is any guide, the answer is yes. And if history is any guide, three decades from now most Americans will have only the haziest idea why.

Since the 1950s, the US has been trying to mold that remote land to its own desires, first through an aid "war" in the midst of the Cold War with the Soviet Union; then, starting as the 1970s ended, an increasingly bitter and brutally hot proxy war with the Soviets meant to pay them back for supporting America's enemies during the war in Vietnam.  One bad war leads to another.

From then until the early 1990s, Washington put weapons in the hands of Islamic fundamentalist extremists of all sorts—thought to be natural, devoutly religious allies in the war against "godless communism"—gloated over the Red Army's defeat and the surprising implosion of the Soviet empire, and then experienced its own catastrophic blowback from Afghanistan on September 11, 2001. After 50 years of scheming behind the scenes, the US put boots on the ground in 2001 and now, 12 years later, is still fighting there—against some Afghans on behalf of other Afghans while training Afghan troops to take over and fight their countrymen, and others, on their own.

Through it all, the US has always claimed to have the best interests of Afghans at heart—waving at various opportune moments the bright flags of modernization, democracy, education, or the rights of women. Yet today, how many Afghans would choose to roll back the clock to 1950, before the Americans ever dropped in? After 12 years of direct combat, after 35 years of arming and funding one faction or another, after 60 years of trying to remake Afghanistan to serve American aims, what has it all meant? If we ever knew, we've forgotten. Weary of official reports of progress, Americans tuned out long ago.

Back in 1991, as Steve Coll reports in Ghost Wars, an unnamed CIA agent mentioned the war in Afghanistan to President George H.W. Bush. Not long before, he had okayed the shipment of Iraqi weaponry captured in the first Gulf War—worth $30 million—to multiple factions of Islamist extremists then battling each other and probably using those secondhand Iraqi arms to destroy Afghanistan's capital, Kabul.  Still, Bush seemed puzzled by the CIA man's question about the war. He reportedly asked, "Is that thing still going on?"

Such forgetfulness about wars has, it seems, become an all-American skill. Certainly, the country has had little trouble forgetting the war in Iraq, and why should Afghanistan be any different? Sure, the exit from that country is going to take more time and effort. No seacoast, no ships, bad roads, high tolls, IEDs. Trucking stuff out is problematic; flying it out, wildly expensive, especially since a lot of the things are really, really big. Take MRAPs, for example—that's Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicles—11,000 of them, weighing 14 tons or more apiece. For that workhorse transport plane, the C-17, a full load of MRAPs numbers only four.

The equipment inventory keeps changing, but estimates run to 100,000 shipping containers and about 50,000 vehicles to be removed by the end of 2014, adding up to more than $36 billion worth of equipment now classified as "retrograde." The estimated shipping bill has quickly risen to $6 billion, and like the overall cost of the war, it is sure to keep rising. 

Seven billion dollars worth of equipment—about 20% of what the US sent in to that distant land—is simply being torn up, chopped down, split, shredded, stomped, and, when possible, sold off for scrap at pennies a pound. Toughest to break up are the weighty MRAPs. Introduced in 2007 at a cost of $1 million apiece to counteract deadly roadside bombs, they were later discovered to be no better at protecting American soldiers than the cheaper vehicles they replaced. Of the 11,000 shipped to Afghanistan, 2,000 are on the chopping block, leaving a mere 9,000 to be flown to Kuwait, four at a time, and shipped home or "repositioned" elsewhere to await some future enemy. 

The military is not exaggerating when it calls this colossal destruction of surplus equipment historic. A disposal effort on this scale is unprecedented in the annals of the Pentagon. The centerpiece of this demolition derby may be the brand-new, 64,000-square-foot, $34-million, state-of-the art command center completed in Helmand Province just as most US troops left, and now likely to be demolished. Or the new $45 million facility in Kandahar built as a repair center for armored vehicles, now used for their demolition, and probably destined to follow them. Taxpayers may one day want to ask some questions about such profligate and historic waste, but it's sure to keep arms manufacturers happy, resupplying the military until we can get ourselves into another full-scale war.

So this exit is a really big job, and that's without even mentioning the paperwork. All those exit plans, all the documents to be filed with the Afghan government for permission to export our own equipment, all the fines assessed for missing customs forms (already running to $70 million), all the export fees to be paid, and the bribes to be offered, and the protection money to be slipped to the Taliban so our enemies won't shoot at the stuff being trucked out. All that takes time.

But when it comes right down to it, the United States has a surefire way of ending a war, no matter when it actually ends (or doesn't). When we say it's over, it's over. 

Enduring Operation Enduring Freedom

As it happens, things probably won't be quite so decisively "over" for everybody. Look at Iraq, for example. The last American troops drove out of Iraq in December 2011, leaving behind a staff of at least 16,000, including 5,000 private security contractors, assigned to the vast $750 million fortress of a US Embassy in Baghdad. That war has now been over for almost two years, the embassy staff is being trimmed, and yet, the drumbeat of news about car bombs, suicide bombers, and the latest rounds of sectarian cleansing has not slackened. Nearly 6,000 Iraqis have been killed so far this year, 1,000 in July alone, making it the deadliest month in Iraq since 2008. Even Iraqis who lived through the war in their own homes are now fleeing, like millions of Iraqis before them—many the victims of sectarian cleansing practiced during the American-led "surge" of 2007 and now polished to a fine art. From the foreign diplomatic corps in Baghdad come informal messages that include the words "worse than ever."

In Afghanistan, too, as the end of a longer war supposedly draws near, the rate at which civilians are being killed has actually picked up, and the numbers of women and children among the civilian dead have risen dramatically. This week, as the Nation magazine devotes a special issue to a comprehensive study of the civilian death toll in Afghanistan—the painstaking work of Bob Dreyfuss and Nick Turse—the pace of civilian death seems only to be gaining momentum as if in some morbid race to the finish.

Like Iraqis, Afghans, too, are in flight—fearing the unknown end game to come. The number of Afghans filing applications for asylum in other countries, rising sharply since 2010, reached 30,000 in 2012. Undocumented thousands flee the country illegally in all sorts of dangerous ways. Their desperate journeys by land and sea spark controversy in countries they're aiming for. It was Afghan boat people who roused the anti-immigrant rhetoric of candidates in the recent Australian elections, revealing a dark side of the national character even as Afghans and others drowned off their shores. War reverberates, even where you least expect it.

Afghans who remain at home are on edge. Their immediate focus: the presidential election scheduled for April 5, 2014. It's already common knowledge that the number of existing voter cards far exceeds the number of eligible voters, and millions more are being issued to new registrants, making it likely that this presidential contest will be as fraudulent as the last, in 2009, when voter cards were sold by the handful. 

With President Hamid Karzai constitutionally barred from a third term, the presidential race is either wide open, or—as many believe—already a done deal. In August, Afghan news services reported that Karzai had chaired a meeting with a few of the country's most powerful warlords to call for the candidacy of Abdul Rab Rasoul Sayyaf, intimidator of women in parliament, longtime pal of Osama bin Laden, mentor of al-Qaeda's Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, likely collaborator in the assassination two days before 9/11 of the Taliban's greatest opponent, Ahmad Shah Massoud—in short the quintessential untouchable jihadi

There's an irony so ludicrous as to be terrible in the thought that while the US supposedly fought this interminable war to insure that al-Qaeda would never again find a haven in Afghanistan, the country's next president could be the very guy who invited bin Laden to Afghanistan in the first place and became his partner in building al-Qaeda training camps.

Even Karzai, who likes to poke his finger in American eyes, quickly backed away from that insult. Within hours of the news reports, he announced that he would remain "neutral." Americans scarcely seemed to notice, but Afghans noted what Karzai had done in the first place. Now, as Sayyaf and other potential candidates do backroom deals, jockeying for position, Afghans wait anxiously to learn which ones will actually register to run before the October 6th deadline.

Continue Reading »

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

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A Firsthand Novel of Surreal Afghanistan

Every once in a while, a book comes along that makes you want to wrest even your own work from readers’ hands and command that they instead read this. Masha Hamilton’s What Changes Everything is that kind of amazing. Hamilton has experience as a war correspondent, spouse and mother, and it is in part the juxtaposition of these roles that makes this, her fifth novel, so powerful. She knows the surreal world that is present-day Afghanistan firsthand, and she delivers the grief and love that world spills into our own with pace, grace and—perhaps most surprisingly—humor.

In this short, intricately constructed novel, Hamilton spins the stories of several people touched by a war which, for most of them, is half a world away: Clarissa, whose new husband Todd is in Afghanistan; Mandy, whose son was wounded there and who travels to Afghanistan herself; Stela, who writes letter after letter from her bookstore in Cleveland, trying to accept the loss of one son in the war and another in the aftermath; a graffiti artist named Danil; and one non-fiction character, Mohammad Najibullah, the president of Afghanistan, whose fall from power was tied to the rise of the Taliban.

Hamilton is the director of communications and public diplomacy at the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan, and the author of four prior novels, including 31 Hours, which the Washington Post called one of the best novels of 2009, and The Camel Bookmobile. She founded two world literacy projects, The Camel Book Drive and the Afghan Women’s Writing Project, which encourages and mentors Afghan women in the hopes that having their stories heard will begin to affect change in their lives, and is a recipient of the Women’s National Book Association Award. She answered a few questions for Ms. while briefly home from Afghanistan.

Ms. Blog: Several of the interwoven narratives of What Changes Everything start in a simple way: Todd decides he wants ice cream. If he hadn’t, his story—and Clarissa’s and therefore Danil’s and Stela’s, too—might be completely different. Yet this beginning is the place where another author might have ended a novel. How did you end up beginning with this small moment that does change everything?

Masha Hamilton: Small moments do change everything—we’ve all experienced that. The difference in a place of war and chronic violence, like Afghanistan, is that the changes brought by a seemingly inconsequential choice, a mere moment of attention or inattention, are often more cataclysmic. Todd doesn’t want to be constrained by security concerns; he wants to take a short walk and eat some ice cream. Simple enough. Later, though, in captivity, he is forced to question his choice. He bears outsized, unanticipated responsibility—to himself, to others—for acting on a very modest desire.

On a secondary note, I do think, as Todd notes, Afghan ice cream is delicious, a miracle in a land that badly needs miracles.

The novel in one sense explores three different scenarios: a man dies in war; a man is severely wounded; a man is missing. And yet the story is told largely through how what happens to them affects the women in their lives—and with surprising humor. Stela’s letters, for example, trying to understand why her son has died are so rich with humor. Did you ever doubt that approach?

When my grandfather died, I remember my mom talking about how she and her two sisters were packing up their childhood home, and my aunt Stana made a joke and then they all began joking, and then laughing in that uncontrollable way over trivial things, over nothing. Just a few months ago, on a sad day in Kabul, I also was hit by a laughing jag at a very inopportune moment, in a small closed-door meeting with senior U.S. diplomats. For a few minutes, I couldn’t stop. Some looked at me oddly; others joined in. It was a reminder of how these emotions—bereavement and hilarity and dread and optimism—swirl around in the same pool. One often touches off another. Stela is in enormous pain, having lost one son and become estranged from the other. But her way of trying to come to terms with it shows a kind of strength. And yes, also humor.

The focus on women also sprung from my desire to show the impact of war on those far from the front line. As a nation, we can nearly forget we are at war. It is remote and perplexing; comprehension of the initial motivation has grown blurred. But if you are in your 20s, it’s been going on for half of your life. As you finish college or get your first job, it has at once become background noise, and at the same time left indelible marks on a generation of young Americans. And every day, those living in the Midwest or the South or along the coast are waking up to find out that in personal and devastating ways, this war has, for them, changed everything.

All the women in this novel are complicated, and not anything close to perfect, but in fact they all find strength within themselves to survive. Why is it that their strength leads readers to feel ultimately hopeful in a situation that doesn’t seem to offer much hope?

I would argue it is not only their strength, but their authenticity, that makes the novel hopeful. They are struggling with messy, unexpected, even “wrong” emotions: resentment of a son who lost his legs, anger at a partner who was kidnapped, inability to trust those who love them most. Yet they try to handle these deep-rooted, troubling reactions with integrity. I think we feel hopeful and empowered by seeing people bring honesty and creativity to overpowering challenges.

Through their responses, they also manage to touch one another, and this interconnectedness deeply interested me as I was writing. Their openness to exploring their individual struggles means that a bookstore owner in Ohio, a street artist in Brooklyn, a nurse from Texas and an Afghan hospital administrator are among those who become linked through this conflict. And in some cases, for example with Danil and Clarissa, they manage to save each other at critical moments.

Some of the women in your novel step beyond the boundaries allowed them, into the kind of danger that is necessary for change. I know in real life you have worked with Afghan women writers, who by the very act of writing also cross that boundary into danger. Were these fictional characters inspired at all by that work?

Four of my five novels skirt around or dive directly into the topic of war, and as a journalist I covered the Arab-Israeli conflict for five years. In these situations, I have repeatedly seen women—and men—take risks to fully be themselves, or step outside themselves in a bid for a more peaceful future. I have absolutely seen it with the brave Afghan women who write for the Afghan Women’s Writing Project, telling their remarkable stories in a country where that degree of self-revelation from a woman holds potential danger.

In my experience, when conflict between nations or within a society ratchets up, greater repression of its women is typically one of the first responses. I have thought a lot about why: Is it that the men need something to control when life feels uncontrollable? Is it some confused desire to “protect” the women? Or a superstition that when women are too free, a society pays the price?  In any case, this reflexive repression requires of women enormous strength and grace.

There are two characters in What Changes Everything whom I was surprised to find had stolen my heart: the American graffiti artist, Danil, and the Afghan aide-turned-negotiator, Amin. Did they steal yours, too? Were any of the characters particularly easy to write? Particularly hard?

Amin and Danil are among my favorite characters as well. To write Danil, I spent some time watching street artists work late at night, and got a sense of the bravery they, too, bring to self-expression. Their work goes beyond ego, and it is tied in part to a desire to connect with those beyond their natural reach, which is a theme in the novel.

And Amin: in some ways, I feel the redemptive quality to the book belongs to him most of all. He begins the book haunted by the cost of conflict. By it’s end, he changes history—or at least, history’s impact on him.

That said, I grew close to all the characters, even secondary ones. As you know, a novel is like an iceberg—the reader sees the top, but in the years it takes to write, we get to know and experience all that’s below the water’s surface.

In your last novel, 31 Hours, you allow us to understand how something like the Boston Marathon bombing might happen by bringing us inside the head of a young man who has been radicalized. In What Changes Everything, you allow us to see the human side of the former president of Afghanistan, who was a pretty brutal guy. I know you’d seen war up close before you wrote these books, but I also know the last months you’ve spent in Afghanistan have been really difficult. Would you write them any differently now?

No. It has been a brutal couple of months, and when one is in the midst of sorrow and loss, there is an impulse to view life in black and white: this is evil and wrong; that is perfect and right. Despite that, I continue to believe it is right to invite readers to see the humanity of a terrorist or a torturer. I accept that it is artistically risky. But it is a novelist’s job is to shave off the top layer, ask the questions open-endedly, write into the grey, and then embrace the soft edges of the semi-answers that emerge. And I think it can give the reader some comfort (it gives me comfort) to know there is no one single answer, but gradations of an answer constantly under creation, under revision.

And what’s next for you?

Once I get back from Kabul, I hope to start a novel about a middle-aged storm chaser and his mother. It will allow me to explore some of those familiar questions: the adrenaline rush, the search for meaning, the unique and powerful relationship between parent and grown child.

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Get Your Hands Off My War on Terror!

AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth
President Obama’s speech at National Defense University last week represented the latest and probably most significant rhetorical shift away from the “war on terror” since he took office in January 2009.  “Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue,” he said in one of the speech’s key passages. “But this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.”

“Core al Qaeda is a shell of its former self,” the president said. “Groups like AQAP [Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] must be dealt with, but in the years to come, not every collection of thugs that label themselves al Qaeda will pose a credible threat to the United States.”

Time will tell whether Obama puts real weight behind some of the changes articulated in the speech. There’s no question that it marked an important turn toward a more nuanced assessment of the threat posed by Islamic terrorism. But like babies who’ve just had their rattles taken away, conservative hawks are freaking out.

Responding at a press conference immediately afterward, (as if waiting for the Sunday talk shows would allow the president’s words to hang in the air too long) four of the Senate’s most ardent hawks—John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Saxby Chambliss, and Kelly Ayotte—reacted to the prospective loss of such an important toy.

“I believe we are still in a long, drawn-out conflict with al Qaeda. To somehow argue that al Qaeda is ‘on the run’ comes from a degree of unreality that, to me, is really incredible,” said McCain. “[Al Qaeda ]is expanding all over the Middle East from Mali to Yemen and all places in between and to somehow think that we can bring the authorization of the use of military force to a complete closure contradicts the reality of the facts on the ground. Al Qaeda will be with us for a long time.”

“The President’s speech today will be viewed by terrorists as a victory,” Chambliss said.

“I’ve never been more worried about our national security than I am right now,” Graham later told Fox’s Chris Wallace. “This speech did not help.”

Appearing on CNN’s State of the Union, Newt Gingrich played his preferred role of the only man willing to tell the hard truths. “No one wants to talk honestly about the fact that there is a radical Islamism on offense,” said Gingrich.  “It is on offense across the planet ... No one wants to talk honestly about how big the threat is, how widespread it is, how fanatic it is, and about how in its own mind it’s totally legitimate.”

This is precisely how Republicans have wanted to talk about terrorism almost every day for the last decade: As an existential threat that must frame all of our political debates.

The intention to use the “war on terror” as a political trump card became clear pretty early on. In January 2002, just over four months after the September 11 attacks, Republican strategist Karl Rove explained to a meeting of the Republican National Committee in Austin, Texas that Republican candidates would be running on the war on terror. As The Washington Post reported at the time, “Rove explained that by stressing the war on terrorism during the 2002 campaigns, GOP candidates ... will be able to capitalize on what he said is the Republican advantage on homeland security issues.”

“We can go to the country on this issue because they trust the Republican Party to do a better job of protecting and strengthening America's military might and thereby protecting America," Rove told the gathering, effectively declaring an end to the bipartisan truce obtained in the wake of the worst terrorist attack in American history.

Later that year, a computer disk was found in Lafayette Park across from the White House containing a PowerPoint presentation written by Rove, stressing the war on terrorism as a campaign issue and directing Republican candidates to “focus on war.”

That sums up the story of the Republican Party's key strategy during the Bush years: Run on the war. Even after Obama won the presidency in 2008, groups like Keep America Safe were created to continue to hammer this message. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the sharp reaction to Obama’s shift away from a “global war” framing has more to do with fear of the loss of advantageous rhetorical ground than it does in any genuine, substantive difference in threat analysis.

There’s no doubt that al Qaeda, in its various permutations, remains a threat (though not one not remotely on the scale of past threats like the Soviets or Nazis) to Americans and our allies. But there should also be no doubt that treating the threat as a vast, civilizational struggle requiring large-scale military interventions and occupations was a disastrous approach, one that played into al Qaeda's own strategy of draining the United States of resources while elevating its own status. From a policy perspective, it’s simply staggering that conservative hawks should want to keep at it. From a political perspective, it makes some sense.

Elsewhere in his speech last week, President Obama declared a renewed effort to close Guantanamo Bay detention center, claiming “there is no justification beyond politics for Congress to prevent us from closing a facility that should have never have been opened.”

There’s also no justification beyond politics for continuing to insist that we’re at war just because a collection of thugs insists we are.

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Until They All Come Home

For reasons beyond my personal control, I recently found myself snarling through the long and winding bowels of the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport ...which, if you haven't had the pleasure and so are unaware, is quite possibly the most preposterous travel hub north of the equator. As I finally managed to stagger my way to the end of another endless hallway that led, allegedly, to the 'Exit' doors, I came upon an impromptu party.

There were maybe fifty people standing behind the security perimeter, some holding American flags, some holding "Welcome Home!" signs, some in uniform. All of them were looking down the hallway I had just emerged from. About ten strides behind me was an Army sergeant in camo carrying a duffel. I stopped to analyze this crowd, he walked past me, and the crowd erupted in cheers and applause. Ah, I thought. This is a welcome-home party for that sergeant ... but the sergeant only tipped the applauding crowd a wave before continuing on his way.

Another man in uniform emerged from the hallway, and the assembled crowd lit up again.

And then another. And another. And another.

Each person in uniform who passed that crowd received the same adulation, the same calls of "Thanks!" and "Welcome home!" I asked a person holding an American flag what the story was, and she told me she and the others came to the airport as often as they could to greet soldiers returning home. One small cluster within the group was actually waiting for a specific person. The rest were just there, to be there for every living thing in uniform that emerged from that hallway.

American history textbooks, along with American "news" media outlets, tend to focus on large martial events - World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm - as specific, defined moments in time. That they are is beyond question; that the spaces between them have been times of peace is, however, laughable. The United States has been in a state of permanent, global war since Pearl Harbor. Involved in conflicts large and small, known and unknown, a moment has not passed in the last 71 years that has not involved American military personnel killing and dying somewhere in the world.

That is fact.

This reality has accelerated to an extreme and lethal level over the last twelve years; we have been at war in Afghanistan since 2002, and at war in Iraq since 2003 (if you think we're not still at war in Iraq, I can introduce you to some military families who are still posting love-you-be-safe letters to that particular delivery code), and the operational tempo that has defined the last 4,000 days has taken a savage toll on the men and women tasked to carry the burden placed upon them by those who have been allegedly leading this country.

This is not a story about America's insanely bloated "defense" budget. It is not a story about the bent priorities this nation has come to accept; to wit: more than half of every dollar collected in taxes goes to warfare and spying, a multi-trillion dollar industry, while we reel through national "debates" about cutting health care benefits for old people and closing schools because "we can't afford it." 

This is a story about the people who have most recently endured what it means to serve in America's military, and what they are dealing with right now as a consequence of that service.

Those people waiting to welcome returning service members in the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta are very special in the current American experience, in that they are acutely aware of the fact that we are, in fact, at war. For most of the country, our ongoing wars are less than an afterthought, a reason to buy Bounty paper towels or Miller High Life beer because the packaging makes mention of "Supporting Our Nations Heroes & Their Families" (with an asterisk, because there's always an asterisk).

For men like Paul Sullivan - former Cavalry Scout for the Army's 1st Armored Division and veteran of the 1991 Gulf War - our ongoing wars and the plight of the veterans who have fought them is an abiding passion, and the focus of a singular mission. 

Between 1995 and 2000, Mr. Sullivan worked for the National Gulf War Resource Center in Washington, DC, where he led the national effort to pass the "Persian Gulf Veterans Act of 1998," a law significantly expanding health care, disability benefits, and scientific research for 250,000 ill Gulf War Veterans. From 2000 to 2006, Mr. Sullivan worked at the VA, where he produced reports about the health care use and disability benefit activity of Gulf War, Afghanistan War, and Iraq War veterans. From 2007 until 2012, Mr. Sullivan served as the Executive Director at Veterans for Common Sense. He regularly testifies before Congress and frequently appears in the media speaking about veterans' health care and disability benefits, especially Gulf War illness and post traumatic stress disorder. He works today for the law firm of Bergmann & Moore, whose website carries a bold banner that reads, "Aggressively Representing America's Veterans."

 I recently interviewed Mr. Sullivan about the current state of affairs for veterans in America.

WRP: Approximately how many veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars will there be in America if/when these wars are wound down to a conclusion? 

PS: As of May 2012, the United States Department of Defense (DoD) deployed approximately 2.4 million individual active duty service members to the war zones in and around Iraq since September 2001.  Of those, more than 1.6 million were discharged from active duty and are now veterans.  As veterans, they are eligible for healthcare and disability benefits provided by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).  Specifically, our recently deployed veterans receive five years of free VA medical care starting from the date of the veteran's discharge from active duty, a new benefit that began in 2009.  For comparison, the U.S. deployed 700,000 to the 1990 - 1991 Gulf War, 3.4 million to the Vietnam War, and 1.8 million to the Korean War, and there were few re-deployments for those three prior wars.

How many deployments have these veterans experienced? The current wisdom says the Afghanistan war won't be finished until the end of 2014, a full three years from now; how many more deployments will that involve? 

According to DoD, nearly one million troops, or more than 40 percent, deployed twice or more to the war zones in and around Iraq and Afghanistan since September 2001.  I don't have access to DoD's troop deployment plans for 2012 - 2014.  Based on history, a reasonable estimate is that a total of 2.5 million U.S. troops will have deployed to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars by the end of 2014.

Describe the average situation of a veteran of these multiple deployments for those who are home and finished with their service?  The experience of those who have been wounded? The experience of those who have not? 

The situation has improved significantly. The George W. Bush Administration had no plan to care for massive casualties.  For example, in August 2003, the Wall Street Journal exposed serious problems at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.  However, that story was ignored (except for reporter Mark Benjamin) by the mainstream press.  However, the Washington Post suddenly "discovered" what was going on down the street from the U.S. Capitol in February 2007, causing widespread national coverage and condemnation of the poor treatment of our wounded, injured, and ill.  I was one of the first former government employee witnesses called to testify before Congress in March 2007 and describe in detail how VA and DoD knew all about the Walter Reed scandal, yet the government failed to act.  Without a doubt, the Walter Reed scandal was the watershed event that changed the paradigm and prompted VA and DoD to begin improving.  Frankly, we could write a book about that sordid affair.

Overall, the veterans of our current wars are more likely to seek VA healthcare and file a disability benefit claim against VA than prior wars.  Veterans with multiple deployments, injuries, or illnesses use VA care and benefits at even higher rates.  Service members wounded in the war zone are far more likely to survive due to tremendous advances in science and medicine as well as the placement of additional experienced trauma professionals inside the war zone, where the most effective treatment can be provided quickly.  For comparison, during the Civil War, a wounded U.S. soldier was more likely to die than survive.  For the current Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, there are more than 6,600 deaths, yet 834,000 veteran patients treated at VA hospitals, a ratio of more than 125 to 1 when both physical and mental health conditions are counted.

On another issue, unemployment for returning veterans is now 10 percent, or two percentage points higher than the general population, according to the Department of Labor, as of early November 2012. 

For the most serious issue, there is one active duty suicide per day.  Among all veterans of all wars and peacetime, there are 18 suicides per day.  Nationwide, each year, three thousand veterans die while their VA disability claim languishes at VA.  

VA's beleaguered disability claims processing system remains mired in severe crisis.  As of November 2012, nearly 900,000 veterans were waiting an average of eight months for an initial decision from VA on a disability benefit claim.  An additional 250,000 veterans are waiting an average of four more years for an answer from VA on an appealed disability claim.  And in April 2012, VA's Office of the Inspector General reported VBA makes errors in 30 percent of the claims VA's OIG audited.  Even worse, the situation continues deteriorating.  The Bay Citizen reported in November 2012 that VBA's error rate fell further, to 38 percent, for VA OIG audits during the past year.  In January 2010, I appeared on "60 Minutes" and described the plight of our veterans. Too many veterans are waiting too long for VA health care and benefits, and that's a national disgrace. 

For our veterans with PTSD, the VA legal landscape improved substantially in favor of veterans.  Prior to 2010, veterans were required to provide evidence to VA of a current diagnosis of PTSD plus evidence of an "event" or "stressor" that caused the veteran to develop PTSD.  Finding documents about the "event" often was impossible or required lengthy searches and endless VA appeals.  Fortunately for our war veterans, based on a 1998 law and a 2008 Institute of Medicine review of scientific studies on PTSD, VA changed the regulation, effective as of July 2010.  Now a veteran must show the diagnosis of PTSD and deployment to a war zone.  

Veterans with concerns about the change should seek professional assistance about their VA disability claim.  Veterans for Common Sense filed the first petition to change VA's PTSD regulations in January 2009, shortly after President Barack Obama became President. I appeared live on CNN immediately after President Barack Obama made the announcement about the new VA regulations in July 2010.

After the Vietnam War, there were increases in veterans going to jail and veterans living on the street.  Those problems are being addressed forcefully today, a sharp improvement over prior failures.  One new development with only limited press exposure are new "Veteran Treatment Courts."  In October 2012, the news show "60 Minutes" broadcast describes how these specialty courts reduce incarceration, increase treatment, and reduce recidivism.  An additional VA program seeks to prevent homelessness among new veterans.  Again, in July 2011, "60 Minutes" aired a news segment describing VA's aggressive outreach efforts to both reduce and prevent homelessness.  Credit goes to advocates who pushed VA, Congress, and local governments to cooperate and address these major social issues. [Full disclosure, I provided background materials and statistics for both segments.]

A recent very un-heralded VA report pegged the number of veterans who are now dealing with PTSD at 30%. How many people is that, and what does that mean for them physically and mentally? 

According to an internal VA report, as of June 30, 2012, VA treated 834,000 veterans after deployment to the Iraq and/or Afghanistan wars, or more than half of the eligible veterans.  Among the 834,000 veteran patients, there are 445,000 diagnosed with at least one mental health condition, more than 50 percent of the patients.  Among the veterans treated by VA, 247,000 are diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or nearly 30 percent of the patients.  According to a Stanford University study, scientists expect a long-term PTSD rate as high as 35 percent.  

So what can we expect? If the rates of 30 percent to 35 percent are applied to all 2.5 million deployed veterans, VA can reasonably expect between 750,000 and 875,000 total veteran patients diagnosed with PTSD over the next few decades.  Please note this estimate excludes military retirees who often use military doctors (and not VA) after leaving the service.  This estimate also excludes veterans who use private doctors or non-Federal medical care.

VA now provides a reliable and easy-to-use set of resources for the public to learn about combat-related PTSD. While VA struggles to provide timely care at hospitals and clinics, VA did start a suicide prevention hotline after VCS sued VA.  Here are details about VA's "Crisis Line," including a recent White House announcement to increase funding for it.

What is the average experience for a soldier who seeks help from the VA? 

There is no average experience; the return home is a unique experience for each new war veteran.  In most cases, veterans are seen promptly by competent VA professionals.  However, VA's inconsistent ability to provide both timely access and quality care remain very serious problems for too many veterans.  Specifically, in April 2012, VA's Office of the Inspector General concluded VA has a nationwide systemic inability to meet demand for care.  VA "does not have a reliable and accurate method of determining whether [VA is] providing patients timely access to mental health care services. VHA did not provide first-time patients with timely mental health evaluations and existing patients often waited more than 14 days past their desired date of care for their treatment appointment.  ... [The VA OIG] analysis projected that VHA provided only 49 percent (approximately 184,000) of their evaluations [to veterans seeking mental healthcare] within 14 days. On average, for the remaining patients, it took VHA about 50 days to provide them with their full evaluations."

Someone once said, "A nation that does not care for its veterans has no business making new ones." How do you feel about that statement?

There are other more salient quotes regarding war and veterans.

In 1789, President George Washington, a retired Army General, said, "The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional as to how they perceive the Veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their country."

In November 1863, President Abraham Lincoln dedicated the Gettysburg battlefield with these timeless and poignant words: "It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us-that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion-that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain-that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom-and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

At his second inaugural address in March 1865, Lincoln said, "...let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan-to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations."

More importantly, when dealing with VA, I firmly agree with retired Army General Omar Bradley's statement in 1947, after he was sent to clean up a scandal-ridden VA: "We are dealing with veterans, not procedures - with their problems, not ours."

Finally, there is retired Army General William T. Sherman, who said to young military prep students in June 1879, "I've been where you are now and I know just how you feel. It's entirely natural that there should beat in the breast of every one of you a hope and desire that someday you can use the skill you have acquired here. Suppress it! You don't know the horrible aspects of war. I've been through two wars and I know. I've seen cities and homes in ashes. I've seen thousands of men lying on the ground, their dead faces looking up at the skies. I tell you, war is Hell!"

What does "Until they all come home" mean to you?

Coming home means far more than bringing our troops home, ending the war with an official declaration, holding a parade, and promising care.  In my view, we must uphold President Lincoln's powerful words from March 1865.  For we as individuals, communities, and a nation have a solemn duty to make certain our veterans receive prompt and quality health care, disability benefits, and other VA transition assistance, including full due process legal rights to obtain care and benefits.

Copyright, Truthout. William Rivers Pitt is a Truthout editor and columnist.  He is also a New York Times and internationally bestselling author of three books: "War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You to Know," "The Greatest Sedition Is Silence" and "House of Ill Repute: Reflections on War, Lies, and America's Ravaged Reputation." He lives and works in Boston.

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How Did Scores of Military Units Lose Combat Records in the War on Terror?

This week, Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter Peter Sleeth answered questions from Redditors on the revelation that field reports have been lost or are missing for many Army units deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Below, highlights of that discussion.

(Read: Lost to History: Missing War Records Complicate Benefit Claims by Iraq, Afghanistan Veterans)

Q: How far does this problem reach? Are you aware of any issues like this with the intelligence agencies? I find it funny/sad that veterans are losing benefits and care because the army couldn't get their version of Excel installed. But there are over 3,000 pages of documentation into the Petraeus affair. TommyFoolery

A: Senior officers tend to keep their own records quite well, they are conscious of their own history, for certain. We are now exploring whether these missing field records are causing problems with intelligence activities, as a matter of fact.

Q: How the military has dealt with what I'm sure is a recurring problem over the last several decades? Is the problem better/worse? amzam

A: My belief is that lost records are a constant in a large bureaucracy like the military since the beginning. However, what we are talking about in our story is a massive loss of field records in volumes never before seen. Understand that field records are a distinct category from medical or personnel records, which are kept in separate pipelines, so to speak.

Q: You document the impact on veterans seeking benefits. Are there implications for how the war is remembered? — collo229

A: Yes, history is written from these records.Field records are used by historians for their singular ability to go to an exact spot in time. For example, a few years back I was working on a book about a company of Civil War soldiers. Using field records they recorded, I was able to follow them campsite by campsite through three years of war. I mean, they were so detailed I could go to each site across the South.

Q: Were you really that surprised to find the largest bureaucracy in the U.S. federal government was so inefficient? I'm surprised they can find any records. — IhaveSomeQuestions56

A: I was surprised because the U.S. Army has an efficient track record in keeping field records back to the Revolutionary War. It only really fell apart with the onset of computers.

Q: Do you think this was the result of peacetime lack of diligence, and are veterans organizations going to coordinate a response, e.g. organize a massive organized march on the Pentagon? MomsHugs

A: Yes, I do think this was a lack of planning during peacetime. It is terribly sad the money and time that was wasted. As to vets organizations, it is a strange mix, some are so tied up with the VA, in my opinion, they cannot afford to anger them. Yet plenty of the vets organizations are mad about this and I expect you will see them petitioning Congress.

Q: How much of the missing records do you believe are due to commanders covering their (or others) ass(es)?[TD1] — TommyFoolery

A: Good question, I imagine it happens occasionally, but in 10 months of reporting I did not find evidence of anything nefarious. Rather, it was a mix of poor training, worse execution and inexcusably sloppy behavior.

Q: That was my first reaction when I read that units were wiping hard drives before they left them for their replacements. Nothing says teamwork like making the new guys start from scratch. — TommyFoolery

A: What typically happened was the departing unit would clear the hard drive to make room for the new unit's data. So the departing unit would leave maybe the last 60 days activity, then clean the rest of the hard drive to allow for more storage capacity. Or, they cleaned them because they were ordered to for security reasons.

Q: Do you reckon some records may have been consciously "lost" to bury the truth, perhaps, on atrocities military personnel may have committed while on the tours? What happens to accountability where there are no records? Who takes the fall for this? — OjayisOjay

A: That is a popular thought out there; I really don't think it happened much, if at all. That said, it would be unwise to rule it out. Accountability is absent, in answer to your excellent question. As to who takes the fall, we shall see. We are going to keep pushing on this story. We think there is much more that is buried here.

Q: What do you think the best solution to this problem is? — IhaveSomeQuestions56

A: the best solution would be rigorous training of senior officers and penalties for not keeping records properly, like demotion.

Q: What advice would you give to active soldiers in order to lower their risk of falling victim to this when their time comes? — TommyFoolery

A: I would tell soldiers to get copies of everything from their deployment orders, to their medical records, to whatever field records they can that involve them and keep them safe, send them home, whatever. A soldier can always ask to see what relevant records they have through the U.S. Army's Joint Services Records Research Center, and for Marines, through the Marines. If there records are missing, field records in particular, make sure you keep a contact list for your commanding officers and other soldiers once you get home. You can use your comrades for "lay" testimony that will substitute for missing records.

Q: Given your line of work, how much do you wish your name was Peter Sleuth? It's only one letter away. —imnotyourbloke

A: I've been doing this work for nigh on 30 years. I have heard that, and much worse versions of my name. Although I am a fan of the PBS show "Sherlock Holmes" with Jeremy Britt.

 Peter Sleeth is a veteran investigative reporter who covered the Iraq war for The Oregonian and helped the paper win a Pulitzer Prize in 2007 for breaking news. Now freelancing, his most recent piece for the Oregon Historical Quarterly is a profile of progressive-era activist Tom Burns.

SHARE YOUR STORY: Are you a veteran who can't obtain your military field records? We want to hear from you.

WATCH: Peter Sleeth and Seattle Times reporter Hal Bernton discuss veteran benefits on Huffington Post Live

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Afghanistan, America's Longest War

The official U.S. military death toll in Afghanistan has just passed the 2,000 mark. On Monday, a suicide bomber wearing an Afghan army uniform killed 14 people, including three U.S. soldiers, in the eastern province of Khost. Amidst a spate of attacks by Afghan troops on NATO forces, NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen has revealed Western forces may withdraw from Afghanistan sooner than expected. In addition, the New York Times reports the United States has all but written off hopes of working out a peace deal with the Taliban.

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Tags: afghanistan war, afghanistan war end

Twin Afghan Bombings Kills 20 Civilians

A pair of suicide bombers struck outside NATO's biggest base in southern Afghanistan on Wednesday, killing 20 civilians and wounding 50, officials said, in one of the bloodiest attacks in recent weeks.

And officials and villagers in Logar province, about 30 km south of Kabul, said a NATO air strike killed 18 civilians, including women and children, along with six Taliban insurgents.

The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force said there was an air strike in the area during a raid on a Taliban commander, but there were no civilian deaths. It said two women received non life-threatening injuries and that a number of insurgents were killed.

Four provincial governors from the south were at a meeting at the sprawling NATO base in Kandahar when the twin suicide attacks took place, General Abdul Hameed, Afghan army commander for the southern region, told Reuters.

A bomber on a motorcycle blew himself up in a parking lot near the base packed with truck drivers and other civilians waiting to get into the facility.

A few minutes later, as people gathered at the site of the blast, another bomber on foot walked into the crowd and detonated his explosives, said Ahmad Faisal, a spokesman for the provincial governor.

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A Dumb, Unwanted War

In the airport in Atlanta yesterday, I happened to be standing next to some American soldiers, wearing camouflage, on their way to Afghanistan. They knew the name of the province that they were going to, but they were arguing over what part of the country that province is in. One said the east. One said the south. One said the west. One of them thought that their destination was near Kandahar, but then they started arguing over where Kandahar is located.

I hope that they get it all sorted out before the shooting starts.

If they don't know what part of the country that they're going to, then what are the chances that they speak the local language? (There are 48 different native languages in Afghanistan.) What are the chances that they know anything about Islam? (Which is practiced by more than 99 percent of all Afghans, language differences notwithstanding.)

To little fanfare, President Obama announced last week that he signed an agreement to extend the US military occupation of Afghanistan for twelve more years. No one noted the irony of this, since under our Constitution, President Obama can be president for no more than another 4 and a half years.

Also under our Constitution, a treaty requires the concurrence of two-thirds of the Senate. (Article II, Section 2, Clause 2). No one in the Obama administration even took a stab at explaining why this agreement with a foreign power was not being submitted to the Senate for concurrence. But the reason is obvious: the Senate would not concur.

Also under our Constitution, you will search in vain for any provision that authorizes a lengthy military occupation of a foreign country. In fact, the Constitution does not authorize a standing Army, much less an Army standing in Kabul. In the Bizarro world in which we live, we have 27 attorneys general challenging the constitutionality of 35 million Americans getting health coverage, but no one challenges the constitutionality of an undeclared war (see Article I, Section 8 on that) that has now entered its second decade.

Presidential candidates Obama and Clinton obviously were separated by race and gender, but one of the few things that separated them on policy was Clinton's vote in favor of the war in Iraq, contrasted with Obama's 2002 statement that the war in Iraq was "dumb." This is what State Sen. Barack Obama said, in October 2002, in the Federal Plaza in Chicago:

I don't oppose all wars. What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war. What I am opposed to is the cynical attempt by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz and other armchair, weekend warriors in this administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne.

What I am opposed to is the attempt by political hacks like Karl Rove to distract us from a rise in the uninsured, a rise in the poverty rate, a drop in the median income, to distract us from corporate scandals and a stock market that has just gone through the worst month since the Great Depression.

That's what I'm opposed to. A dumb war. A rash war. A war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics.

Obama was talking about the war in Iraq. But let's be honest. At this point, after 11 years of pointless, fruitless, endless war, doesn't all of that apply equally to the war in Afghanistan?


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Tags: afghanistan war

Afghans Displeased with 'Inhuman' Photos

Afghan President Hamid Karzai speaks during a gathering in Kabul April 17, 2012. Karzai called photographs of U.S. soldiers posing with the bodies of Afghan suicide bombers "inhuman" and said a quick transition to Afghan security forces was necessary to ensure the incident was not repeated.


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