Thursday, April 30, 2009

Panel Advises Clarifying U.S. Plans on Cyberwar

The United States has no clear military policy about how the nation might respond to a cyberattack on its communications, financial or power networks, a panel of scientists and policy advisers warned Wednesday, and the country needs to clarify both its offensive capabilities and how it would respond to such attacks.

The report, based on a three-year study by a panel assembled by the National Academy of Sciences, is the first major effort to look at the military use of computer technologies as weapons. The potential use of such technologies offensively has been widely discussed in recent years, and disruptions of communications systems and Web sites have become a standard occurrence in both political and military conflicts since 2000.

The report, titled “Technology, Policy, Law, and Ethics Regarding U.S. Acquisition and Use of Cyberattack Capabilities,” concludes that the veil of secrecy that has surrounded cyberwar planning is detrimental to the country’s military policy.

The report’s authors include Adm. William A. Owens, a former vice chairman of the joint chiefs of staff; William O. Studeman, former deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency; and Walter B. Slocombe, former under secretary of defense for policy. Scientists and cyberspecialists on the panel included Richard L. Garwin, an I.B.M. physicist.

Admiral Owens said at a news conference Wednesday in Washington that the notion of “enduring unilateral dominance in cyberspace” by the United States was not realistic in part because of the low cost of the technologies required to mount attacks. He also said the idea that offensive attacks were “nonrisky” military options was not correct.

In the United States, the offensive use of cyberweapons is a highly classified military secret. There have been reports going back to the 1990s that American intelligence agencies have mounted operations in which electronic gear was systematically modified to disrupt the activities of an opponent or for surveillance purposes. But these activities have not been publicly acknowledged by the government.

The report concludes that the United States should create a public national policy regarding cyberattacks based on an open debate on the issues. The authors also call on the United States to find common ground with other nations on cyberattacks to avoid future military crises.

The authors point to a 2004 Pentagon statement on military doctrine, indicating that the United States might respond to a cyberattack with the military use of nuclear weapons in certain cases. “For example,” the Pentagon National Military Strategy statement says, “cyberattacks on U.S. commercial information systems or attacks against transportation networks may have a greater economic or psychological effect than a relatively small release of a lethal agent.”

Pentagon and military officials confirmed that the United States reserved the option to respond in any way it chooses to punish an adversary responsible for a catastrophic cyberattack. While the options could include the use of nuclear weapons, officials said, such an extreme counterattack was hardly the most likely response.

“The United States reserves the right to respond to intrusions into government, military and national infrastructure information systems and networks by nations, terrorist groups or other adversaries in a manner it deems appropriate,” said one senior Pentagon official.

Another senior Pentagon official added, “While the United States would always reserve the right to respond appropriately to defend the nation and its citizens, this kind of scenario is extremely speculative and requires an enormously vivid imagination.”

The two officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the highly classified nature of planning for cyberwarfare and nuclear warfare. Both officials emphasized that in American military planning, there are only rare instances when any specific option would be declared off-limits in advance.

This effort to specifically project a lack of clarity is viewed as important to keeping an adversary uncertain of the severity of an American counterattack. Introducing that uncertainty into the thinking of an adversary’s government and military has historically been an essential element of deterrence, whether traditional nuclear deterrence or today’s cyberwar planning.

For example, during the cold war, when the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies stationed an overwhelming conventional force in Central Europe, American planners were never certain that NATO’s tanks and artillery could hold back the Soviet-led armor if an offensive was begun across the Fulda Gap in Germany.

Thus, the United States never declared that it would be bound to respond to a Soviet and Warsaw Pact conventional invasion with only American and NATO conventional forces. The fear of escalating to a nuclear conflict was viewed as a pillar of stability and is credited with helping deter the larger Soviet-led conventional force throughout the cold war.

Introducing the possibility of a nuclear response to a catastrophic cyberattack would be expected to serve the same purpose.


State labs: US swine flu cases likely higher

MILWAUKEE (AP) - A hundred cases of swine flu in the U.S.? Health officials say there are likely more. Just how many is not important, they say. As the world faces a potential pandemic, swamped labs are not testing all possible cases. Getting an exact tally has taken a back seat to finding new outbreak hot spots or ways to limits its spread, health officials said.

"The specimens are coming in faster than they can possibly be tested," said Dr. Jeffrey P. Davis, state epidemiologist in Wisconsin, where a lab helped spot the nation's first known case, in a 10-year-old boy from San Diego.

New York, which has more cases than any other U.S. location, also has had to limit the samples it tests, said Dr. Don Weiss of that city's health department.

"Sure, we'd want to diagnose every case, but we don't have that resource," he said. Instead of trying to confirm every sign of the virus, "we're focused on where else is it going and how do we prevent it."

On Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will start shipping kits so states can do their own swine flu tests. Until now, state labs could only rule out previously known flu strains and send suspicious samples to CDC.

With the new kits from CDC, states will be able to declare presumed swine flu cases, allowing doctors to start treatment. Medicines to fight the virus, such as Tamiflu and Relenza, must be taken within 48 hours of first symptoms to do any good.

Until now, many busy labs have been so overrun that they could do preliminary tests only on samples that meet a strict case definition or that involve people who traveled to Mexico.

"The capacity of the state laboratories to test all the swabs is being exceeded," said Dr. Paul Jarris, executive director of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.

Initially, labs just needed to detect the virus, he said. "Once it's in the community, it's not as important to detect every single case. You can actually treat based on the clinical picture."

Sending samples to CDC was "getting to be a challenge," said Alabama State Health Officer Don Williamson. The first eight were negative, and the state lab had 29 more to test on Wednesday, he said.

Without a confirmed case, state officials still took the precaution of ordering 1.5 million face masks and other supplies.

"We are preparing for the worst while praying for the best," Williamson said.

CDC has had to be selective, too. The agency generally can process about 100 samples a night, said Michael Shaw, associate director for laboratory science. CDC has not said how many specimens they have received for testing.

"As the number of specimens increases, the time slows down," Shaw said. "It's not just a matter of running tests. It takes time to unpack boxes, make a record of receiving, enter into the database."

The CDC added just 18 new cases to its official list on Thursday, and its acting director said it may stop doing confirmatory testing as the virus becomes more common in a community.

"We may move away from case updates," Dr. Richard Besser said. "The numbers become a little murkier, and we'll focus more on where things are occurring and what that tells us about the spread of infection."

The public may be surprised to know it's not so important to have an exact tally, or to tell a person whether he or she has the germ, said Sharon Shea. She is director of infectious disease programs at the Association of Public Health Laboratories, the network of labs that work with CDC.

"It's not what people want to hear. As an individual, you want to know what's making you sick," she said.

Each state's epidemiologist will have to decide what samples should be tested, said Scott Becker, executive director of the lab association.

The common cold and other viruses are also circulating and cause similar symptoms.

In the last two days, the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene "had a huge spike," about 150 samples of suspected swine flu cases, said its communicable disease chief, Pete Shult. Wisconsin has five probable cases awaiting CDC confirmation.

Through a fluke, his lab helped confirm the nation's first case. A private company doing a study of an experimental rapid flu test it wants to sell had agreed to send any samples that could not be typed to a more experienced lab - in this case, the Marshfield Clinic Research Foundation in Wisconsin.

The clinic, in turn, had agreed to alert the state to any flu viruses that did not match a known strain.

"I got a call on Good Friday. They had such a specimen," he said. That was from the boy in San Diego who was the first known U.S. case of swine flu.

The sample was tested on Monday, April 13, and shipped overnight to CDC, which confirmed it as the novel swine flu on Tuesday, April 14.

The San Diego boy had fallen ill on March 30. Since then, the CDC and the public health lab association have suggested that state labs go back through samples since February to look for signs of the virus. At CDC, stored samples show no earlier sign of it, Shaw said.

"That's the odd thing about this. It just appeared out of the blue the last week of March," he said.

Shult said the hunt now is "an academic exercise" and a lower priority than testing the hundreds of samples that might help contain the outbreak.

"I'm going to be trying to stay afloat" of the crush of current samples, he said.


Alleged firing of whistle-blower in Iraq probed

WASHINGTON —- U.S. military officials want to know if an employee of a private security contractor was fired for confirming serious deficiencies in training and equipment for Ugandan guards hired to protect an American base in Iraq.

Information about John Wayne Nash’s sudden departure from Iraq after he met with staff from the Commission on Wartime Contracting has been forwarded by U.S. Central Command to the Pentagon inspector general, according to a defense official.

The military relies on hired guards at bases in Iraq so troops are available for combat duty. Overall, five companies provide the service under contracts with an estimated value of $250 million. A majority of the guards are from Uganda and other East African countries and make about $700 a month.

Nash, a retired Marine master gunnery sergeant, was security contractor Triple Canopy’s on-site manager at Forward Operating Base Delta, about 90 miles south of Baghdad. The Herndon, Va.-based firm denies he was disciplined.

But the commission said reports indicate Triple Canopy guards don’t have enough vehicles to do the job, even though the company is required to provide all labor, weapons and other equipment that the guards need. It also said Nash had been instructed by Triple Canopy not to meet with investigators.


Fancy Iraq Hols? Flights May Go Next Year

On the day British forces formally ended combat operations in Iraq, the delegation arrived in London.

After six years of conflict, the nation requires investment across the board - from transport to financial services to healthcare.

So who can make it work at this fragile stage in Iraq's re-emergence? Service industries could be the first to do well - those who deal in the most fundamental components of infrastructure.

"We are ready to launch flights to Baghdad subject to government security approvals" said BMI chief executive, Nigel Turner.

"A scheduled airline like us literally brings in investment by transporting business users, but the service itself also sends a strong message that Iraq is open for business."

The airline is hoping to run a flight a day between Heathrow and Baghdad from 2010. Most of the plane will be business class to cater to the majority of the users.

"Businessmen will happy to pay a premium for a comfortable and safe ride to Iraq", Mr Turner added.

Iraqi diplomats and business leaders know making economic headway can only be done by attracting foreign investment from opportunistic countries with an eye for risk and reward.

Hussein Al Uzri, the chairman and chief executive of the Trade Bank of Iraq, which has a pivotal role to play in facilitating foreign investment, told Sky News: "The security situation is finally improving.

"And so the relationship between Iraq and the rest of the world can be redefined into commercial and business."

He is convinced it is the companies that go in early, that will benefit the most, even though the push for investment is coming during a global downturn.

He said: "Maybe this will divert attention to Iraq. The opportunities there are now too big to ignore. Whereas it was once easy to make money in Europe, in Africa and the emerging markets, it is not any more."

But potential investors are perhaps more realistic. Hawk Sunshine is head of investment banking at Russian financial company, Metropol.

He said: "The situation in Iraq is similar to Russia in the 1990s. Companies investing in a risky country can be at the leading edge or the bleeding edge, and they are very close together.

"There will be businesses that fail in that environment, or find things difficult in the short term. We would be looking to invest for the long term."

It is unclear whether any real headway has been made in easing the visa requirements for Iraqi citizens looking to come to the UK to get skills training or business experience, to take back to Iraq.

The Trade Bank of Iraq also wants the British government to sign export guarantees.

That would, in their view, be the single most influential factor in encouraging British corporate investment in Iraq.

And of course, the security issue has not gone away - there can be no guarantees issued to cover that.

UK business secretary Lord Mandelson is keen to stress that remarkably, 40% of Iraq's population is under the age of 15.

That means in the short-term there is potentially a huge skills and knowledge gap to fill and in the long-term. There is potential for a generation of young business leaders, created and honed post-conflict.

Corporate Iraq represents a mixed bag of possibilities - for those with a healthy appetite for risk, it is a whopping opportunity. The question is, is it just too soon for many British companies to make it work?


New gear puts snipers in check in Iraq

WASHINGTON — Sniper attacks by insurgents on U.S. troops in Iraq have been eliminated so far this year, the result of better equipment and training and taming the insurgency, according to military officials and records.
In 2007, there were 291 sniper attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq, according to Multi-National Force-Iraq, the U.S.-led military coalition there. There were 92 such attacks last year and none so far this year, records show.

Because improved tactics and technology have helped slash the number of attacks, commanders in Afghanistan — where ambushes and sniper attacks have increased — are asking for technology that can pinpoint the source of gunfire, said Maj. Shawn Lucas, who helps coordinate countersniper efforts at the Pentagon.

Insurgents rarely engage U.S. forces in conventional attacks because of the overwhelming advantage American troops have in firepower, equipment and training. They opt instead for longer-range attacks, such as ambushes, sniper fire and improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.

Sniper attacks increased from 10 in 2007 to 19 in 2008, according to the U.S. military in Afghanistan. There have been five sniper attacks so far this year.

Capt. Elizabeth Mathias, a military spokeswoman, cautioned that the figures for Afghanistan are estimates.

Since late 2008, the Army has been issuing devices to soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq that can pinpoint the location of snipers, Lucas said. One or two soldiers per unit now wear the iPod-size devices to help them spot snipers' locations, take cover and return fire.

"At longer engagement ranges, like what you see in Afghanistan, it can be particularly difficult to pinpoint where exactly the shooter is," Lucas said. Without the new technology, he said, a sniper can shoot before anyone can find him by ear or by "seeing the muzzle flash and the smoke from the rifle."

The device, called the Soldier Wearable Acoustic Targeting System, is part of a $450 million effort the Army mounted after sniper attacks reached their peak in Iraq. The money has been used to buy similar devices for vehicles. If a bullet passes close enough to the device's sensors it can point out the location of the shooter, Lucas said. More than 1,000 of the devices have been issued to soldiers.

Soldiers had complained about the inaccuracy of earlier versions of Boomerang, the device that can be mounted on Humvees. Some of those soldiers lacked the training to understand its limitations, Lucas said. The Army is now issuing third-generation Boomerangs with improved accuracy, he said.

There are about 700 on Humvees, and thousands more are scheduled to be installed on Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles, Lucas said.

Commanders also have made urgent requests for better binoculars and infrared sights to locate snipers at night.

President Obama's decision to send 21,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan this year to help root out insurgents and train Afghan security forces could mean more potential targets for snipers.

Soldiers now are better trained on how to spot snipers and how to conceal themselves, Lucas said, leading to a dramatic decrease in attacks in Iraq.

Andrew Krepinevich, president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, credited some of the decline to the counterinsurgency strategy that was adopted in 2007 in Iraq. It focused on providing security for population by controlling neighborhoods. In turn, Iraqis provided security forces tips on insurgents, including snipers.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in a series of speeches to war colleges to build support for his $534 billion budget proposal, declared that providing troops in combat with what they need to fight and survive is his "overriding priority."

Sniper attacks were once feared by the Pentagon as a threat second only to roadside bombs.

In 2007, Defense officials sought $1.4 billion for anti-sniper programs. Budget documents then stated that snipers, if unchecked, could have surpassed roadside bombs as the top killer of U.S. troops.


Gunmen attack Chinese oil installations in southern Iraq

Azzaman, April 30, 2009

Unidentified gunmen have destroyed a power station feeding the Ahdab oil field which a Chinese firm is developing.

The attack is the first on Ahdad for the development of which the China National Petroleum Corporation had signed a $3 billion contract with Iraq in 2008.

The Chinese had only started operations in earnest last month and the attack is a blow to their plans to develop the field situated in the border Province of Wasit southeast of Baghdad.

Iraqis provide security for the Chinese workers and their equipment and the Chinese are also reported to have brought with them their own security team.

A provincial official, refusing to be named said: “Installations belonging to an important oil field have been subjected to a terrorist attack from unidentified gunmen.

“The attackers targeted the electricity system linked to the field as well as the lines carrying power. The damage is estimated at more than $1 million,” the source added.

He said the authorities believe the attack is a warning for the Chinese to leave.

China was the first foreign country to have won such a lucrative foothold in the country, seen as one of the riches in oil reserves in the world.

Although representing only a modest fraction of Iraq’s oil riches, the Ahdab field was marketed as proof that security conditions have improved and foreign workers in the country would be safe.

There has been no reaction from the Chinese side but their withdrawal would squash Iraqi dreams of boosting oil production to 4.5 million barrels a day from the current 2.5 million.

The attackers, analysts say, are probably sending “a warning signal” to the Chinese for more attacks if they stay put.

Iraq hopes the development of Ahdab will add at least 900,000 barrels a day to its output.


Government injecting veterans with cocaine for drug addiction research

Drug-addicted veterans are being injected with cocaine by researchers at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in taxpayer-funded studies, The Examiner has learned.

The study subjects are being given the injections as part of a search for medicines that researchers hope will block cocaine absorption in the body, said Timothy O’Leary, the VA’s acting director of research and development.

All the subjects were recruited because they were addicted to cocaine, O’Leary said. About 40 volunteers — most of them veterans — are being given injections at VA labs in Kansas City and San Antonio, he added.

Hundreds of veterans have apparently been used as human subjects in the past decade, according to records and interviews with officials.

The VA has handed over several other abstracts from studies over the past decade, and O’Leary said his agency has been conducting such research for at least 25 years.

O’Leary said that the subjects’ safety was paramount. But documents of a decade-old study that tested morphine on veterans found nearly 800 “adverse events” from anorexia to heart tremors.

Last month, The Examiner reported that the federal government had spent millions of taxpayer dollars to give addicts drugs such as crack and intravenous cocaine as well as morphine and other opiates in publicly funded clinical studies. The VA documents and interviews suggest that the programs have been even more widespread than previously suspected.

According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, more than 6,000 licenses have been given to scientists to use otherwise illegal drugs in their experiments. DEA officials declined to hand over their records.

O’Leary said the studies were desperately needed to find ways to treat addiction. An estimated 140,000 vets suffer from drug addiction, according to VA officials.

“As you know, there are a lot of people out there who suffer from addictions. It’s a huge societal problem,” O’Leary said in a phone interview.

Critics say that experimenting on addicts runs contrary to ethical guidelines on “informed consent.” The doctrine requires that human laboratory subjects understand the risks of the experiment and can say no. For at least 20 years, scientists have recognized that addiction is a disease, which means that addicts can’t simply say no.

Pressure is mounting on the government to come clean about its drug experiments.

“How many ways can the government get it wrong?” Cato Institute scholar Tim Lynch asked The Examiner.

Compared with the CIA’s former habit of testing dangerous drugs on unwilling volunteers, these programs are “an improvement if the research deals with volunteers and full disclosure of the risks involved,” Lynch said. “But it is not clear to me why the government has to subsidize such research.”

U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said through a spokesman that he was “closely reviewing” the matter.

O’Leary said that the cocaine injections in San Antonio and Kansas City were being given in “extremely controlled conditions,” but when asked to detail what he meant by that phrase, he said he wasn’t familiar with those labs.

VA officials have not acted on a Freedom of Information Act request for access to their files.

Washington Examiner

The CIA's $1,000 a Day Specialists on Waterboarding, Interrogations

As the secrets about the CIA's interrogation techniques continue to come out, there's new information about the frequency and severity of their use, contradicting an 2007 ABC News report, and a new focus on two private contractors who were apparently directing the brutal sessions that President Obama calls torture.

According to current and former government officials, the CIA's secret waterboarding program was designed and assured to be safe by two well-paid psychologists now working out of an unmarked office building in Spokane, Washington.

Bruce Jessen and Jim Mitchell, former military officers, together founded Mitchell Jessen and Associates.

Both men declined to speak to ABC News citing non-disclosure agreements with the CIA. But sources say Jessen and Mitchell together designed and implemented the CIA's interrogation program.

Click here to see Jessen refusing to talk to ABC News.

"It's clear that these psychologists had an important role in developing what became the CIA's torture program," said Jameel Jaffer, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union.

Click here to see Mitchell refusing to talk to ABC News.

Former U.S. officials say the two men were essentially the architects of the CIA's 10-step interrogation plan that culminated in waterboarding.

Associates say the two made good money doing it, boasting of being paid a $1,000 a day by the CIA to oversee the use of the techniques on top al Qaeda suspects at CIA secret sites.

"The whole intense interrogation concept that we hear about, is essentially their concepts," according to Col. Steven Kleinman, an Air Force interrogator.

Both Mitchell and Jessen were previously involved in the U.S. military program to train pilots how to survive behind enemy lines and resist brutal tactics if captured.

Mitchell and Jensen Lacked Experience in Actual Interrogations

But it turns out neither Mitchell nor Jessen had any experience in conducting actual interrogations before the CIA hired them.

"They went to two individuals who had no interrogation experience," said Col. Kleinman. "They are not interrogators."

The new documents show the CIA later came to learn that the two psychologists' waterboarding "expertise" was probably "misrepresented" and thus, there was no reason to believe it was "medically safe" or effective. The waterboarding used on al Qaeda detainees was far more intense than the brief sessions used on U.S. military personnel in the training classes.

"The use of these tactics tends to increase resistance on the part of the detainee to cooperating with us. So they have the exact opposite effect of what you want," said Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich).

The new memos also show waterboarding was used "with far greater frequency than initially indicated" to even those in the CIA.

Abu Zubaydah was water boarded at least 83 times and Khalid Sheikh Mohamed at least 183 times.

Former CIA Officer John Kiriakou Says Waterboarding is Torture

That contradicts what former CIA officer John Kiriakou, who led the Zubaydah capture team, told ABC News in 2007 when he first revealed publicly that waterboarding had been used.

He said then, based on top secret reports he had access to, that Zubaydah had only been water boarded once and then freely talked.

Kiriakou now says he too was stunned to learn how often Zubaydah was waterboarded, in what Kiriakou says was clearly torture.

"When I spoke to ABC News in December 2007 I was aware of Abu Zubaydah being waterboarded on one occasion," said Kiriakou. "It was after this one occasion that he revealed information related to a planned terrorist attack. As I said in the original interview, my information was second-hand. I never participated in the use of enhanced techniques on Abu Zubaydah or on any other prisoner, nor did I witness the use of such techniques."

A federal judge in New York is currently considering whether or not to make public the written logs of the interrogation sessions.

The tapes were destroyed by the CIA, but the written logs still exist, although the CIA is fighting their release.

A CIA spokesperson declined to comment for this report, except to note that the agency's terrorist interrogation program was guided by legal opinions from the Department of Justice.


Training Afghans as Bullets Fly: A Young Marine’s Dream Job

FIREBASE VIMOTO, Afghanistan — Three stone houses and a cluster of sandbagged bunkers cling to a slope above the Korangal Valley, forming an oval perimeter roughly 75 yards long. The oval is reinforced with timber and ringed with concertina wire.

An Afghan flag flutters atop a tower where Afghan soldiers look out, ducking when rifle shots snap by.

This is Firebase Vimoto, named for Pfc. Timothy R. Vimoto, an American soldier killed in the valley two years ago. If all goes according to the Pentagon’s plan, this tiny perimeter — home to an Afghan platoon and two Marine Corps infantrymen — contains the future of Afghanistan. The Obama administration hopes that eventually the Afghan soldiers within will become self-sufficient, allowing the fight against the Taliban to be shifted to local hands.

For now this vulnerable little land claim — in the hostile village of Babeyal and supported by a network of American infantry positions nearby — offers something else: a fine-grained glimpse inside the Afghan war, and the remarkably young men often at the front of it.

There are nearly 30 Afghan soldiers here. Their senior mentor, Cpl. Sean P. Conroy, of Carmel, N.Y., is 25 years old. His assistant, Lance Cpl. Brandon J. Murray, of Fort Myers, Fla., is 21.

On the ground, far from the generals in Kabul and the policy makers in Washington, the hour-by-hour conduct of the war rests in part in the deeds of men this young, who have been given latitude to lead as their training and instincts guide them.

Each day they organize and walk Afghan Army patrols in the valley below, some of the most dangerous acreage in the world. Each night they participate in radio meetings with the American posts along the ridges, exchanging plans and intelligence, and plotting the counterinsurgency effort in the ancient villages below.

In Corporal Conroy’s war, two Marines train Afghans in weapons, tactics, first aid, hygiene and leadership. They keep the firebase supplied with ammunition, water, batteries and food. They defecate in a rusting barrel and urinate in a tube that slopes off a roof and drains into the air. Fly strips surround them. They have no running water; their sleeping bunker stinks of filthy clothes and sweat.

The corporal has tied a flea collar through his belt loops; he needs it like a dog. He served two tours in Iraq. His four-year enlistment ended last month, but he extended for nine months when promised he would be assigned to a combat outpost in Afghanistan.

He hopes to attend college later. For now, he represents a class of Marine and soldier that has quietly populated the ranks since 2003. He enlisted not to pick up job skills or to travel the world at government expense. He enlisted to fight. “We’re the new generation,” he said. “I’ll tell you what — there are a lot of young Marines who’ve seen more combat than all of the guys up top who joined in the 90s.”

He is supremely cocky, but unpretentious. When he met two journalists from The New York Times he asked what news agency they represented. Hearing the answer, he replied with one extended syllable: “Boooooo.” He prefers a good tabloid, he said.

He does not hide that he likes his life here: the senior man in an isolated post, surrounded by the Taliban, waking to a new patrol every day and drilling what he calls the Alamo Plan, to be executed if the firebase is overrun. “This is the sweetest deal ever,” he said one evening between firefights. “There is no other place I could get a job like this — not at this rank.”

He woke the next day before 4 a.m. for a patrol. As he slipped into his ammunition vest, he groused that back home, when conversations drift to the war, the infantry too often is misunderstood. “You know what I don’t like about America?” he said, in the chill beneath lingering stars. “If you do what I do, then they think either you should have PTSD or you are some sort of psychopath.” PTSD is post-traumatic stress disorder.

He exhaled cigarette smoke. “This is my job,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with it.”

The war in Afghanistan defies generalization. Each province, each valley and each village can be its own universe, presenting its own problems and demanding its own solutions.

In large areas of the countryside, the Americans try the softer touch of local engagement: distributing aid, seeking allies and coaching a nascent government to provide services on its own. Corporal Conroy and Lance Corporal Murray drew a different sort of assignment.

Here there is no Afghan government. The valley long ago sank into an old-school fight. Whether and how the contest for the Korangal can be shifted into something different, through negotiations, force or a counterinsurgency campaign, is not clear.

For now, the villages are eerily empty of men between the ages of 15 and 45. They are in the forests and mountains, from where they stage attacks and disrupt efforts at aid and development. They appear openly only on Fridays, when they gather without weapons at mosques, one of which is 150 yards from the firebase. The Afghan soldiers sometimes visit the mosque to pray at the same time, and the two sides eye each other warily, sharing a sacred space in a lull between fights.

The firefights between the insurgents and the Americans vary widely. Some are a few rifle shots or bursts of machine gun fire. Others are intensive ambushes of foot patrols. Many are attacks on American outposts and firebases. Sometimes all the firebases are struck at once.

In all, Corporal Conroy said, in five months here, he and Lance Corporal Murray have been attacked more than 70 times. He said he respected the insurgents’ courage, but was grateful that most of them lacked an essential skill.

“They are experienced and understand the principles of the ambush,” he said. “But they are not very good shots. If these guys knew how to shoot like even the U.S. Army, we would be taking 50 percent casualties on all of our patrols.”

He looked himself over. “Not a scratch yet,” he said. He balled his left hand into a fist and knocked on a sagging plywood table, warding off the jinx.

How effective the American training mission will be is unclear. The corporal said it would be years before the Afghan Army was ready to operate independently full time. But he said he had seen reason for optimism.

The Afghan captain who worked here until early April was overweight, lazy and rarely left the firebase. He used Afghan infantryman as valets. “I expected to come in and find the soldiers dropping grapes in his mouth,” Corporal Conroy said.

“Or fanning him with a palm branch,” said Lance Corporal Murray.

A new Afghan lieutenant rotated in last week. He is neat and lean, and has shown self-discipline and tactical sense. The Marines celebrated his arrival by buying a chestnut-and-white bull.

The Afghan soldiers bound the animal’s legs and flipped it onto its side. A soldier worked a blade across its throat. These Afghan soldiers eat meat once every two or three weeks. Tonight they would feast.

They were palpably happy. “Let Barack Obama come here and kill a cow for us,” one said. The rest laughed.

Corporal Conroy watched until the jokes subsided. War, like politics, is local. He reminded the Afghans that a platoon looked out for itself, and that he was the senior American on hand. “You don’t need Obama here,” he said. “I bought the cow.”


Official: Ospreys Heading to Afghanistan, New Trucks Not Heading Anywhere

In a briefing yesterday at the Pentagon, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Conway said the controversial V-22 Osprey will soon be deployed to Afghanistan.
The Osprey, Conway said, “is purposefully headed towards Afghanistan.”

As we reported here previously, the gradual winding down of the mission in Iraq may free up the Osprey for an Afghanistan deployment. The V-22 made its combat debut in Iraq, where it served primarily as a troop transport. Conway praised the Osprey — which takes off and lands vertically like a helicopter, but flies with the speed and range of a fixed-wing aircraft — for its ability to “shrink the battlespace” in Iraq. “One of my commanders in Iraq compared it — being able to turn Texas into a place the size of Rhode Island,” he said.

In Afghanistan, the Ospreys will be taking on the job being performed by the Marines’ Vietnam-vintage CH-46 Sea Knight medium-lift helos. The Sea Knight fleet is aging rapidly, and has limitations in its range and power; having an Osprey squadron could expand the capabilities of the Marines in southern Afghanistan. “In all probability we will retain an Osprey capability there for as long as we have Marines there,” Conway said.

While Conway was enthusiastic about the V-22, he did not have kind words for the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle.

The Army and the Marine Corps want a next-generation truck that will be tricked out with the latest in vehicle survivability and electronics. But Conway complained that the vehicle designs being forwarded by industry were simply too heavy to be useful. “If it comes in at the weight where it is right now, the Marine Corps simply cannot get involved, will not buy a Joint Light Tactical Vehicle that’s 20,000 pounds,” he said. “It doesn’t fit our expeditionary kind of capacity. We can’t carry it in our helicopters or even sling it. And so we’ve got to have something lighter than that.”

Vehicle weight is a serious problem in Afghanistan, where the roads are often too primitive for heavyweight trucks like the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle. The suspensions on the MRAP have taken a beating in Afghanistan, and Conway said the service had come up with an engineering fix to improve the off-road performance of the vehicles.

The solution involved taking the the suspension from a Medium Tactical Vehicle Replacement truck and putting it on an MRAP. It took a few attempts to make it work, however. Raising the suspension created more blast surface under the vehicles (”When we blew it up after having modified it, didn’t work very well. … the dummies inside all died,” Conway said), so the system required more modification. After a bit more tweaking, the modification worked, Conway said, and the new, more off-road capable MRAP will now get to the field faster — at a fraction of the cost of developing a new vehicle.


BABY MAMMOTH PHOTO: Milk, Feces Part of Calf's Diet

April 20, 2009—Fecal residue and traces of prehistoric milk have been found in the digestive track of an almost perfectly preserved baby mammoth, according to a new analysis.

Lyuba—a one-month-old mammoth that died 40,000 years ago—has been gently poked, prodded, and scanned by an international team of scientists since she was discovered two years ago in the Russian Arctic. The calf appears to have perished when she either drowned or was suffocated in mud near the edge of a river.

The baby mammoth underwent computer tomography (CT) scans last year and more recently had her tissue, bone, and teeth analyzed. (Watch video below of the scientists examining the baby mammoth's insides.)

Milk residue found during the latter analysis, combined with a fat hump on the back of her neck, indicate that the baby mammoth was healthy and well fed, said team member Daniel Fisher of the University of Michigan.

The hump generated heat and was used by baby mammoths to stay warm during the first months of their lives, Fisher added.

"This is the first time we have a really healthy, 'in the pink' animal," Fisher said. "We've had adults with wheelbarrows full of soft tissue, but none as complete as [Lyuba]." Previously found baby mammoths had been unhealthy and essentially starved, he said.

The fecal material found in Lyuba's intestine was likely her mother's, fed to the baby to establish a healthy microbial community in her gut—key to proper digestion. Such behavior is common in modern herbivores.

"We are learning more about what [mammoths] ate and how to recognize animals that are healthy versus stressed," Fisher said.

Further analysis of Lyuba's teeth may offer clues as to what caused many Ice Age mammals to vanish at the end of the Pleistocene epoch, about 10,000 years ago, according to the researchers. (Explore a prehistoric time line.)

"This line of investigation is a tool by which we'll be able to solve the late Pleistocene extinction," Fisher said. "We'll be able to distinguish between the two main competitors: climate change and hunting."

Read more about the baby mammoth in the May 2009 issue of National Geographic magazine.


Hey, look what popped out of the permafrost.

Afghanistan: Taliban announces new spring offensive

Kabul, 29 April (AKI) - The Taliban has announced it will launch a major new military offensive against foreign forces in Afghanistan from Thursday. The deputy of the Afghan Taliban's supreme leader Mullah Omar said on Wednesday the militant group would begin a new "strong and robust" operation.

More than 25,000 extra US and NATO forces are due to arrive in the country this year in a bid to counter its increasingly ferocious Taliban-led insurgency.

"As the US and NATO want to send more troops to Afghanistan, the Afghans too sense the need for a strong and robust operation to counter the new forces," Mullah Brodar Akhund, the Taliban's second-in-command, said in a statement.

"The target of the operation will be military bases of invaders, diplomatic centres, military convoys, officials of the puppet government and members of the parliament," he said in a statement.

Brodar said the operation, called 'Nasrat' (Assistance), would include an increased number of suicide attacks, ambushes and offensive assaults.

His statement also called on the Afghan government, employees and security forces to stop working with the "puppet government."

Haulage firms that transport military supplies for NATO troops and construction companies that build military bases in Afghanistan should halt their activities or face reprisals, the statement warned.

It came the same day that a suicide car bomber rammed his explosives-laden vehicle into a convoy of the NATO-led ISAF's soldiers in northern Kunduz province, wounding five soldiers, according to an official cited by Pajhwok Afghan News agency.

Also on Wednesday, Afghan forces backed by the US-led coalition troops killed an estimated 10 insurgents and detained two suspects in a battle that broke out during a patrol in southeastern Logar province, Pajahwok reported.

US president Barack Obama announced earlier this year that he would send 17,000 combat troops and 4,000 military trainers to Afghanistan this year as the administration changed its focus from the war in Iraq to the one in Afghanistan.

Other NATO countries have also pledged to send around 5,000 soldiers and military advisors to Afghanistan in the coming months to help provide security for the upcoming presidential elections in August.

Britain announced on Wednesday it would send 700 extra troops to boost security in Afghanistan during the presidential elections. The polls are being seen as a key test of democracy in the war-torn country.

Australia's prime minister Kevin Rudd also said the government would send an extra 450 troops to Afghanistan, increasing its contingent there to 1,550.

The new Australian troops will be mainly tasked with training the Afghan army in the southern province of Uruzgan. They include a temporary eight-month deployment of 120 soldiers for the period around the August elections, Rudd said.

Taliban militants have steadily gained strength in Afghanistan since 2005 and have extended their control over large areas of the country.

Nearly 300 foreign troops were killed by insurgents in 2008 in what was the deadliest year of fighting for them since US-led forces toppled the Taliban from power in 2001.

More than 70,000 international troops from 42 nations are currently deployed in Afghanistan. Over 160,000 newly trained members of the Afghan army and police are also fighting the Taliban.


Worse Than Thought

"Texas ER Doctor: Swine Flu Much Worse Than Feared
Leaked Email
The following email was written by Dr. Marcus Gitterle, MD Christus Santa Rosa Health Care In New Braunfels, and leaked on the internet. Hosipital spokespersons have authenticated the email, but refuse further comment. It speaks for itself.

San Antonio Lightning

Thanks, B Will Derd

Iraq: First Shia Al-Qaeda cell 'uncovered'

Baghdad, 29 April (AKI) - Iraqi police claim for the first time to have uncovered an Al-Qaeda cell containing three Shia members, Iraq's interior ministry said, quoted by pan-Arab daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat. The ministry said the cell operated in the area around the city of Diwaniya, 180 kilometres south of Baghdad, and carried out numerous attacks and targeted killings.

One of the cell's alleged Shia members was a police officer employed by the interior ministry, it said.

"The investigations began on 9 April, just days after the series of bombings in Baghdad," interior ministry spokesman Ahmed Abu Raghif said.

"We received information that a policeman from al-Doura helped the terrorists drive through numerous police and Iraqi army checkpoints in Baghdad to carry out the car bombings."

The policeman was arrested and confessed to the crime, Raghif was quoted as saying.

Iraqi authorities believe the cell carried out a series of bombings in Baghdad on 6 April that killed 32 people.

Iraq's prime minister Nouri al-Maliki on Tuesday confirmed in a statement that Abu Omer al-Baghdadi, one of the most wanted Al-Qaida leaders, had been detained in custody.

The Iraqi government announced last week that its troops had captured a suspect who was believed to be al-Baghdadi and they were still carrying out their investigations.

Al-Baghdadi is believed to be the head of the self-styled Islamic State of Iraq. The group is an Al-Qaeda-led umbrella organisation of extremist Sunni militant groups.


Petraeus: Next Two Weeks Critical to Pakistan's Survival

Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. Central Command, has told U.S. officials the next two weeks are critical to determining whether the Pakistani government will survive, FOX News has learned.

"The Pakistanis have run out of excuses" and are "finally getting serious" about combating the threat from Taliban and Al Qaeda extremists operating out of Northwest Pakistan, the general added.

But Petraeus also said wearily that "we've heard it all before" from the Pakistanis and he is looking to see concrete action by the government to destroy the Taliban in the next two weeks before determining the United States' next course of action, which is presently set on propping up the Pakistani government and military with counterinsurgency training and foreign aid.

Petraeus made these assessment in talks with lawmakers and Obama administration officials this week, according to individuals familiar with the discussions.

They said Petraeus and senior administration officials believe the Pakistani army, led by Chief of Staff Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, is "superior" to the civilian government, led by President Ali Zardari, and could conceivably survive even if Zardari's government falls to the Taliban.

American officials have watched with anxiety as Taliban fighters advanced earlier this month to within 70 miles of the capital city of Islamabad. In recent days, the Pakistani army has sought to reverse that tide, retaking control over strategic points in the district of Buner even as the Taliban struck back by kidnapping scores of police and paramilitary troops.

The see-saw nature of the battles Wednesday demonstrated to U.S. officials that, as one put it to FOX News, "even with intent and superior technology, the capability may not be there" for the Pakistani army to defeat the extremists.

As for the security of the Pakistani nuclear arsenal, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last Saturday, in an interview with FOX News in Baghdad, that the U.S. believes the arsenal to be "safe" but only "given the current configuration of power in Pakistan."

She described as "the unthinkable" a situation in which the the Zardari government were to be toppled by the Taliban, adding "then they would have the keys to the nuclear arsenal of Pakistan, and we can't even contemplate that. We cannot let this go on any further..."

The officials who spoke with Petraeus, however, said he and they believe that even were Zardari's government to fall, it was still conceivable that Kayani's army could maintain control over the nuclear arsenal.

That is because the Pakistani arsenal is set up in such a way -- with the weapons stockpile and activation mechanisms separated -- so as to prevent easy access by invaders. Moreover, the Taliban is not believed at present to possess the sophisticated technical expertise necessary to exercise full "command and control" over a nuclear arsenal, and would probably require weeks if not months to develop it.

The anxiety with which U.S. officials are monitoring events in Pakistan is compounded by a battle here at home over how best to help the Pakistanis. Some members of Congress want to attach benchmarks to any aid provided to Islamabad -- a move opposed by the Obama administration -- while still others wish to transfer authority over key funding streams from the Defense Department to the State Department, also opposed by the administration.

At a House Armed Services Committee hearing on Wednesday, Chairman Ike Skelton,D-Mo. asserted that the existing funding mechanism, the Coalition Support Initiative, under which the U.S. reimburses Pakistan for military expenditures undertaken in support of the U.S. global war on terror, "is not serving the interests of either our country or Pakistan very well."

Michele Flournoy, U.S. under secretary of defense for policy, rejected that view, saying the initiative has proved "absolutely critical" to the missions in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.

At the same hearing, Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher, whose bureau oversees South and Central Asia, told lawmakers the Obama administration favors the Defense Department retaining control over the new funding mechanism for Pakistan being proposed, a Title X provision entitled the Pakistan Counterinsurgency Capabilities Fund (PCCF).

The goal of PCCF is to provide funding for the immediate training and equipping of the Pakistani army to fight a counterinsurgency war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The Pakistani army, U.S. officials say, has historically been modeled to fight a conventional war against India, as opposed to unconventional warfare against non-state actors like terrorist groups.

A final problem, officials told FOX News, was that no one in the U.S. possesses "an understanding of the Taliban's true objective." It remains unclear to policymakers here whether the group truly seeks to overthrow the Zardari government or merely to carve out a territory within Pakistan in which it can establish safe haven, impose Sharia law, and plot attacks on external targets.


American UFO Spotted In Afghanistan

An unidentified, jet propelled UAV has been spotted operating from an American airbase in Afghanistan. It's a flying wing design, similar to the X-45s and X-47s built as development aircraft for the U.S. Air Force and Navy. These UCAVs (Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles) were built to carry weapons, and the one spotted in Afghanistan may have a bomb bay as well. The U.S. Air Forces X-45A combat UAV (UCAV) dropped its first smart bomb in 2004. There are also purely reconnaissance jet powered UAVs built as experimental vehicles.
Last year, the U.S. Navy rolled out its first combat UAV. This was part of a six year long, $636 million contract to build and test two X-47B aircraft. The test program calls for first flight this year and first carrier landing in two years. The 15 ton X-47B has a wingspan of 62 feet (whose outer 15 foot portions fold up to save space on the carrier). It carries a two ton payload and be able to stay in the air for twelve hours.

Six years ago, the X-47A UCAV made its first flight. Development of this aircraft began in 2001. The Air Force was also testing the X-45 UCAV, which also had a naval version (the X-46). The X-45 program began in 1999, and the eight ton (max takeoff weight, with two ton payload) aircraft was ready for operational tests in 2006. The X-46 has a different wing layout, and a range of 1,100 kilometers, carrying a payload of two tons. The X-47A also has a two ton payload and a range of 1,600 kilometers. Unlike the X-45, which was built to be stored for long periods, the X-47A was built for sustained use aboard a carrier. All of these aircraft are very stealthy and can operate completely on their own (including landing and takeoff, under software control). The UCAVs would be used for dangerous missions, like destroying enemy air defenses, and reconnaissance.

The X-45 was meant mainly for those really dangerous bombing missions, early on, when enemy air defenses have to be destroyed. But the Pentagon finally got hip to the fact that the UCAS developers were coming up with an aircraft that could replace all current fighter-bombers. This was partly because of the success of the X-45 in reaching its development goals, and the real-world success of the Predator (in finding, and attacking, targets) and Global Hawk (in finding stuff after flying half way around the world by itself.)

The X-45A passed tests with formation flying. An X-45C could carry eight SDB (250 pound small diameter bombs), or up to two tons of other JDAMs. The X-45A has already shown it can fly in formation. The planned X-45C would weigh in at about 19 tons, have a 2.2 ton payload and be 39 feet long (with a 49 foot wingspan.) The X-45A, built for development only, is 27 feet long, has a wingspan of 34 feet and has a payload of 1.2 tons. The X-45C was designed to hit targets 2,300 kilometers away and be used for bombing and reconnaissance missions. Each X-45C was to cost about $30 million, depending on how extensive, and expensive, its electronic equipment was. Believing they could do better, the U.S. Air Force cancelled its X-45 program three years ago, and is now looking into different UCAV designs.

Meanwhile, many UCAV designers want to equip the UCAVs with sensors (various types of video cams) to give the aircraft the same kind of "situational awareness" that piloted aircraft have. But for this to work, the UCAV would need software that would enable it to think like a fighter pilot. The techies say this can be done. But the fighter pilots that run the air force and naval aviation are not so sure. There also some worry about job security and pilots being replaced by robotic aircraft. All this is headed for some mock combat exercise between manned and unmanned fighters. Such tests will be a competition between pilots and programmers. But the programmer community contains fighter pilots as well, and the smart money is on the geeks to outsmart, or at least outfly, the human pilots. No one thinks it will be a lopsided battle, but the robotic aircraft are so much cheaper, that even a dead even finish favors the pilotless aircraft.

The U.S. Navy has invested several billion dollars, so far, in developing combat UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) that can operate from aircraft carriers, and replace some of the manned aircraft on carriers. There are other problems with the combat UAVs, and these concern just how they will be used. Currently, the thinking is that they will be sort of like cruise missiles that return, and will be most useful for reconnaissance and dangerous missions like taking out enemy air defenses. But many UAV engineers, and some fighter pilots, believe that combat UAVs could revolutionize air warfare. Combat UAVs can perform maneuvers that a manned aircraft cannot (because there are limits to the g-forces a human body can tolerate.) In theory, software and sensors would make a combat UAV much quicker to sort out a combat situation, and make the right move. For the moment, this aspect of UAV development is officially off the table. But once combat UAVs start operating, and that will be by the end of the decade, there will be much pressure to let combat UAVs rule the skies, in addition to scouting and bombing.

Meanwhile, no one is saying what a combat UAV design is doing in Afghanistan. But there it is, operating as a UFO (unidentified flying object).


Curacao drug ring linked to Hezbollah

Seventeen people have been arrested in for their alleged involvement in a drug trafficking ring, which is believed to be connected to the militant Hezbollah organisation in Lebanon.

The police say 4 people from Lebanon are among the suspects.

The others are said to be from Curacao, Cuba, Venezuela and Colombia.

According to Police Chief Carlos Casseres some of the proceeds of the drug ring went towards supporting groups linked to Hezbollah.

The smuggling ring is also alleged to have forwarded requests from Lebanon for arms to be shipped from South America.

The authorities in Curacao say the United States and the Netherlands are helping them to investigate the alleged Hezbollah connection.


Nature Iraq completes fifth season of Winter Biodiversity Surveys

"It is amazing to me all that Nature Iraq and their partners have accomplished in the past 5 years. They are witnesses to the incredible resilience of the natural world and are an inspiration to me that even when things are darkest there are people with the vision to see beyond the present to a better tomorrow and work towards that future."
Birding Babylon

12 slain in shooting at Azerbaijan oil academy

BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) - A young man armed with an automatic pistol and clips of ammunition rampaged through a prestigious institute in the Azerbaijani capital Thursday, killing 12 people and wounding others before killing himself as police closed in, the government said.

Little is known about the gunman and even less about the motive for the bloodshed that shook the faculty and students of the Azerbaijan State Oil Academy, a noted school whose graduates have included future presidents and tycoons.

The suspect, Farda Gadyrov, entered the Azerbaijan State Oil Academy in Baku and climbed five floors of the building, shooting everyone he met along the way, according to a joint statement from the Interior Ministry and state prosecutors.

Gadyrov, a Georgian citizen born in 1980, then shot and killed himself with the gun, a Makarov pistol, when he saw police approaching, the statement said. It said he had three magazines of ammunition.

The statement gave no motive for the attack in Azerbaijan, a country at the crossroads of western Asia and Eastern Europe, with Russia, Georgia, Armenia and Iran at its borders.

TV footage from inside the academy showed victims lying face down in the corridors, apparently dead, with blood seeping onto the floor. Students carried others, apparently injured, out of the building, and weeping women hurried out.

"We were in an exam, we heard gunshots, we went out of the classroom in panic and saw a gunman opening fire on everyone. Three of my friends were shot," Bekir Belek, a Turkish student, told CNN-Turk television from a Baku hospital. "Everywhere was covered in blood, all the corridors."

"We were trying to escape but had to return when my friends were shot; we took them to hospital," Belek said.

"There were bodies at each floor," said Ibrahim Kar, another Turkish student at the hospital.

Ilgar Mamedov, whose father, an employee of the academy, said the gunman walked the corridors of the academy taking aim at the head of anyone standing within range, and shooting. If it was apparent a victim was not dead after a first shot, the attacker shot again, Mamedov said.

Azeri President Ilham Aliev offered condolences in a statement later Thursday, and said he would personally oversee the investigation.

The Azerbaijani television station ANS quoted an official in Dashtepe, the Georgian village where Gadyrov grew up, as saying that Gadyrov had left with his parents about a decade ago to live in Russia, then returned briefly about a month ago before moving to Azerbaijan. "It was said that someone had promised him work," said the official, Vidadi Gasanov.

Gasanov described him as an unsociable child who mostly stayed in his house and said "there was something strange in his character."

During his brief return to the village "he went outside only to make purchases at the stores," Gasanov said.

The academy, which has existed under a variety of names since the beginning of the 20th century in this oil-rich former Soviet republic, has long been recognized as a major international center for the training of oil industry specialists.

Among its graduates were Vagit Alekperov, the president of Lukoil, Russia's biggest independent oil producer; Angola's President Jose Eduardo dos Santos; Heydar Aliyev, Azerbaijan's first post-Soviet president; and Lavrenti Beria, the head of the Soviet secret police under Josef Stalin.


Iraqi refugees stay put despite relative calm

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) - The vast majority of Iraqis who fled their country have no plans to return even though violence is way down, many hoping instead to resettle in the West.

The trends, uncovered on the basis of scores of interviews by The Associated Press and confirmed by Iraqi government and United Nations figures, raise the possibility that countries like Syria and Egypt - poor themselves - could face a significant refugee problem for years to come.

Iraq may never, or at least not for years, recover much of the urban, educated, predominantly Sunni Muslim and Christian middle-class whose skills would be vital to its rebuilding. The ranks of doctors and other medical professions have been particularly hard-hit by the refugee flight.

"Life here is better. My children can play outside and I know they'll come back. You never know what's going to happen there," said Taghrid Hadi, who fled Iraq in September 2006 after gunmen kidnapped and killed her husband, dumping his mutilated body outside their home just north of Baghdad.

Hadi, 34, has no intention of returning home. She and other relatives are waiting for word on their applications to be resettled in a third country. Where? "Anywhere but Iraq, I don't care where," she said.

More than 2 million refugees remain outside Iraq, mostly in the Sunni countries of Syria, Jordan and Egypt, according to the International Organization of Migration and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Only about 16,000 refugees - less than 1 percent - have returned from abroad, said Karim al-Saedi, an Iraqi Migration Ministry official.

Besides Iraqis who fled abroad, approximately 1.6 million people have left their homes to take refuge in other parts of Iraq since 2006. They too have been slow to return: About 297,000, or 18 percent, are believed to have gone back, according to an April report by the International Organization of Migration.

In Syria, which has the greatest refugee population - estimated by the government at 1.2 million - only 670 people have asked to benefit from the U.N.'s Voluntary Repatriation Program launched in October to help Iraqis return home, says Philippe Leclerc, acting representative for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Damascus.

"The situation in Iraq is still extremely fragile," making many reluctant to return, Leclerc said.

While violence is dramatically down from its height in 2006-2007, the fragility has been clear in the past week, with a string of suicide bombings targeting Shiite areas of Baghdad. In the latest, two car bombs tore through a crowded commercial district, killing 51 people on Wednesday.

Refugees say the lack of basic services and continuing unemployment in Iraq are also reasons they prefer to stay put in neighboring countries, where - even if their savings are running low and their status uncertain - many can find schools and under-the-table jobs.

Also, Sunni-Shiite sectarian divisions remain deep in Iraq. Some refugees have returned home only to find the hatreds too strong, prompting them to leave again.

Batoul Saleh, a Sunni retired teacher who fled to Cairo with her daughter three years ago, went back to Baghdad in late 2007 only to find that a Shiite man and his family had taken over her house in the mainly Shiite Shula district. The man told her his own father's home was taken over by Sunnis 30 years ago "and it's payback time," Saleh said.

"It's not our country anymore, it's a gangland, it's a jungle," Saleh said as she waited in line at the U.N. refugee agency in the Egyptian capital.

Many among the refugees in Syria are Sunnis, including some Saddam Hussein loyalists or former members of his Baath party. They remain wary of Iraq's Shiite-dominated government and do not trust the prime minister's call for reconciliation.

Overall, the lack of returning refugees could leave Iraq significantly more Shiite than before the U.S.-led invasion. Sunnis formed the bedrock of the educated middle class under Saddam's regime, needed as Iraq rebuilds.

Their reluctance to return only solidifies Iraq's sectarian imbalance. Baghdad, which once had about equal numbers from the two sects, is now believed to have a firm Shiite majority, with formerly Sunni districts emptied or filled with Shiite migrants. That boosts the power of Shiite parties in elections. It even skews the vote among Sunnis, since those who left were largely urban and educated, leaving greater rural and tribal influence on Sunni politicians.

There are numbers of Shiites among the refugees in Egypt and Syria, also fearful to return home to areas that remain Sunni-dominated. But Iraqi Shiites from Iran, for example, have flooded home. Before the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, mainly Shiite Iran was home to more than 200,000 Iraqi refugees, mostly Shiites fleeing repression under Saddam's regime. The vast majority returned home after Saddam's fall, though about 54,000 remain in Iran.

Some refugee families appear to be moving back and forth, keeping a permanent base abroad while visiting Iraq to take care of business or family matters - a sign perhaps of deepening roots in exile, or a desire to keep options open. Tracking the numbers is difficult and many families are divided, said Leclerc.

The sprawling UNHCR registration center, located just outside Damascus, is the busiest and currently the biggest in the world, U.N. officials say, adding that 205,754 refugees in Syria have registered and many seek resettlement abroad.

Carmen Daoud, 20, and her 70-year-old father were among dozens of Iraqis sitting at the center recently. They are Christians from the northern city of Mosul, where violence targeting their community has dramatically escalated what had been a longtime gradual exodus of Christians.

"Even if our application gets rejected, we won't go back to Iraq," says Daoud, a slim girl in denim clothes. "What should we go back to? Our neighbors are gone, people we once knew are either kidnapped or killed."

In Egypt, Tha'er Nouri talks often on an Internet phone system with his two brothers in Baghdad. They all fled to Cairo in 2006 after the brothers received death threats. They recently tried going back, but the 27-year-old Tha'er said he found it "intolerable" and returned to Egypt.

"I don't have money to go out (in Cairo), but at least the TV has power when I turn it on and the tap has drinkable water," said Tha'er. "I can walk the streets without ... looking into the eyes of potential kidnappers or sectarian assassins."

Not everyone prefers exile.

Salem Mohsen is preparing to return home from Syria despite having lost two brothers to violence in Iraq.

Salem, 28, a Sunni from the volatile Diyala province north of Baghdad, fled here with his family after he was kidnapped and tortured for two months. His application to resettle in the U.S. was rejected. Now he plans to go back.

"The situation is supposed to be better, there have been Awakenings in our areas," he said, referring to the Awakening Councils, Sunni tribes that rose up with American encouragement against al-Qaida in Iraq in 2006.

Iraq's government is hoping more will do the same - especially during June and July, when the school year ends. It may organize more free trips home.

But Hadi is sure she will not be on board.

"It's enough I lost my husband," she said. "I cannot lose anything more."


Only in the ME would educated people be seen as a burden, just the potential remittance power alone is probably bigger than the Iraqi GDP

Swine flu source spawns wild theories

LONDON (Reuters) - Dead pigs in China, evil factory farms in Mexico and an Al Qaeda plot involving Mexican drug cartels are a few wild theories seeking to explain a deadly swine flu outbreak that has killed up to 176 people.

Nobody knows for sure but scientists say the origins are in fact far less sinister and are likely explained by the ability of viruses to mutate and jump from species to species as animals and people increasingly live closer to each other.

"The pig has been considered the mixing bowl of influenza viruses. Both avian flu and pig flu viruses have spread via the pig to humans," Paul Yeo, a virologist at Durham University in Britain, said on Thursday.

"The problem now with this virus is that it has picked up a mixture of elements, now including human elements. It's a complex virus."

Twelve countries have confirmed cases of the H1N1 strain, a new infection that has brought the world to the brink of a pandemic.

Finding the source of a new virus is key for scientists because understanding how it jumped to humans can lead to better drugs and vaccines as well as help prevent future outbreaks.

But one link experts probably won't be exploring is an Internet report charging that Mexican drug cartels working with al Qaeda unleashed the swine flu.

"The claim of the conspiracy theorists is that this new combination could not have occurred naturally, but this is not true," the New Scientist's biology editor Michael Le Page wrote.

"Flu viruses consisting of a mixture of human, swine and bird strains have been found before."

Sound science, however, is no match for the Internet and unsubstantiated media reports when it comes to providing a forum for ideas that have forced responses from governments and companies alike.

China's Ministry of Agriculture, for example, on Wednesday denied overseas reports charging that dead pigs found in a south eastern province might be to blame for swine flu, according to an official Xinhua news agency article.

And in Mexico reports in at least two newspapers focused on a factory farm run by a subsidiary of global food giant Smithfield Foods. Some of the rumors mentioned noxious fumes from pig manure and flies -- neither a known vector for flu viruses.

Those reports brought a swift reply from the biggest U.S. hog producer.

"Based on available recent information, Smithfield has no reason to believe that the virus is in any way connected to its operations in Mexico," the company said in a statement.

Viruses spread much more easily on factory farms where animals are packed together than in the wild but so far there is no evidence that any one particular farm is the source


White House warns of swine flu on Obama's Mexico trip

The White House is issuing a health advisory to anyone who traveled on President Barack Obama’s trip to Mexico, after a member of the U.S. delegation came down with flu-like symptoms – and tests on that staffers’ family showed they are probably infected with the swine flu.

After saying just last week that no one who traveled to Mexico City for the president's visit contracted the flu, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs announced that a lead advance person for Energy Secretary Steven Chu came down with flu-like symptoms after the trip and appears to have spread the flu to three members of his family.

Tests on the individual came back negative – probably because too much time elapsed after he got back – but tests on his family showed they have the influenza virus. A test for the swine flu strain – known as H1N1 – showed they are probable for that.

The individual, of Maryland, traveled to Mexico City on April 13, began to feel ill on April 16, and as of today is back to work, Gibbs said. Gibbs declined to name the man, but said he did not come within six feet of President Obama, although he was present at a dinner Obama attended.

The man flew back to Washington on a commercial United Airlines flight that landed at Dulles airport.

On Monday, Gibbs said that "having talked to the doctors directly about this," not only was the president's health never in danger, "not anybody that I know of, traveling with him in either governmental or press capacity, has shown any symptoms that would denote cause for any concern."


That 8% can be a bitch!

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

FACT CHECK: Obama disowns deficit he helped shape

WASHINGTON (AP) - "That wasn't me," President Barack Obama said on his 100th day in office, disclaiming responsibility for the huge budget deficit waiting for him on Day One.

It actually was him - and the other Democrats controlling Congress the previous two years - who shaped a budget so out of balance.

And as a presidential candidate and president-elect, he backed the twilight Bush-era stimulus plan that made the deficit deeper, all before he took over and promoted spending plans that have made it much deeper still.

Obama met citizens at an Arnold, Mo., high school Wednesday in advance of his prime-time news conference. Both forums were a platform to review his progress at the 100-day mark and look ahead.

At various times, he brought an air of certainty to ambitions that are far from cast in stone.

His assertion that his proposed budget "will cut the deficit in half by the end of my first term" is an eyeball-roller among many economists, given the uncharted terrain of trillion-dollar deficits and economic calamity that the government is negotiating.

He promised vast savings from increased spending on preventive health care in the face of doubts that such an effort, however laudable it might be for public welfare, can pay for itself, let alone yield huge savings.

A look at some of his claims Wednesday:

OBAMA: "Number one, we inherited a $1.3 trillion deficit.... That wasn't me. Number two, there is almost uniform consensus among economists that in the middle of the biggest crisis, financial crisis, since the Great Depression, we had to take extraordinary steps. So you've got a lot of Republican economists who agree that we had to do a stimulus package and we had to do something about the banks. Those are one-time charges, and they're big, and they'll make our deficits go up over the next two years." - in Missouri.


Congress controls the purse strings, not the president, and it was under Democratic control for Obama's last two years as Illinois senator. Obama supported the emergency bailout package in President George W. Bush's final months - a package Democratic leaders wanted to make bigger.

To be sure, Obama opposed the Iraq war, a drain on federal coffers for six years before he became president. But with one major exception, he voted in support of Iraq war spending.

The economy has worsened under Obama, though from forces surely in play before he became president, and he can credibly claim to have inherited a grim situation.

Still, his response to the crisis goes well beyond "one-time charges."

He's persuaded Congress to expand children's health insurance, education spending, health information technology and more. He's moving ahead on a variety of big-ticket items on health care, the environment, energy and transportation that, if achieved, will be more enduring than bank bailouts and aid for homeowners.

The nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget estimated his policy proposals would add a net $428 billion to the deficit over four years, even accounting for his spending reduction goals. Now, the deficit is nearly quadrupling to $1.75 trillion.


OBAMA: "I think one basic principle that we know is that the more we do on the (disease) prevention side, the more we can obtain serious savings down the road. ... If we're making those investments, we will save huge amounts of money in the long term." - in Missouri.

THE FACTS: It sounds believable that preventing illness should be cheaper than treating it, and indeed that's the case with steps like preventing smoking and improving diets and exercise. But during the 2008 campaign, when Obama and other presidential candidates were touting a focus on preventive care, the New England Journal of Medicine cautioned that "sweeping statements about the cost-saving potential of prevention, however, are overreaching." It said that "although some preventive measures do save money, the vast majority reviewed in the health economics literature do not."

And a study released in December by the Congressional Budget Office found that increasing preventive care "could improve people's health but would probably generate either modest reductions in the overall costs of health care or increases in such spending within a 10-year budgetary time frame."


OBAMA: "You could cut (Social Security) benefits. You could raise the tax on everybody so everybody's payroll tax goes up a little bit. Or you can do what I think is probably the best solution, which is you can raise the cap on the payroll tax." - in Missouri.

THE FACTS: Obama's proposal would reduce the Social Security trust fund's deficit by less than half, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center.

That means he would still have to cut benefits, raise the payroll tax rate, raise the retirement age or some combination to deal with the program's long-term imbalance.

Workers currently pay 6.2 percent and their employers pay an equal rate - for a total of 12.4 percent - on annual wages of up to $106,800, after which no more payroll tax is collected.

Obama wants workers making more than $250,000 to pay payroll tax on their income over that amount. That would still protect workers making under $250,000 from an additional burden. But it would raise much less money than removing the cap completely.


It's so lame it actually hard to believe people that eat that shit up. Not only did he vote for all the spending, he's now criticizing, he's spending more....

That Bush spent too much, so we are now going to triple it.

Taiwan president: China approves island WHO role

TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) - Taiwan said Wednesday it had persuaded China to allow it to participate in a key U.N. body, offering a victory for President Ma Ying-jeou's campaign to win greater international recognition for the democratic island.

China, which for almost six decades has struggled against Taiwanese participation in international bodies, confirmed that Taiwan will attend next month's meeting of the World Health Assembly in Geneva as an observer.

The WHA is the decision-making authority for the World Health Organization.

Agreement on the issue is a major achievement for Ma, who took office 11 months ago amid promises to turn the corner on his predecessor's anti-China stand, and work for better relations with Beijing.

Taiwan and China split amid civil war in 1949. China continues to claim the island as part of its territory and normally objects to Taipei's participation in international organizations as a symbol of national sovereignty.

Wednesday's announcement comes amid rising worldwide concern over the spread of swine flu, which is believed to have claimed more than 150 lives and sickened thousands in Mexico and infected people in several other countries.

Speaking to staffers at the Presidential Office in Taipei, Ma said Beijing had lifted its longtime objections to Taipei's participation in the WHA, calling it a victory for his China engagement policy.

"The mainland authorities have made a friendly gesture," he said.

Ma spokesman Wang Yu-chi said the island would participate in the assembly under the name Chinese Taipei, the same title it uses in the Olympics.

In Beijing, the official Xinhua news agency said the agreement on the WHA issue reflected China's desire to promote better relations with Taipei.

"Such an arrangement shows our goodwill to achieve practical benefits for Taiwan people and indicates our sincerity to promote peaceful development of cross-Straits relations," it quoted Health Ministry spokesman Mao Qun'an as saying.

The United States welcomed the announcement.

"We have long supported Taiwan's meaningful participation in the WHO, including observer status at the WHA," State Department spokesman Robert Wood told reporters in Washington. "We look forward to the participation of Taiwan at the WHA and the benefits Taiwan's public health expertise will bring to the international community."

Relations between China and Taiwan have improved significantly since Ma's election last March. Predecessor Chen Shui-bian was reviled by Beijing, because of his support for formal Taiwanese independence.

Taiwan - including under Chen - pushed hard for WHA participation, because of the access to key medical information it provides. It used the SARS outbreak in 2002-2003 as an example, saying that Beijing's refusal to let it participate undermined its ability to deal effectively with the deadly epidemic.

Chiu Ya-wen, a researcher at Taiwan's National Health Research Institutes, said that Taiwan's WHA participation would provide the island practical benefits if and when the swine flu crisis affects it.

"Becoming an observer at the WHA will help us combat the swine flu better as we will be able to communicate our needs to the WHO directly, and WHO may be able to send experts to Taiwan if necessary," she said.


Pinned Down, a Sprint to Escape Taliban Zone

ALIABAD, Afghanistan — The two Army lieutenants crouched against boulders beside the Korangal River. Taliban gunfire poured down from villages and cliffs above, hitting tree branches and rocks and snapping as the bullets passed over the officers’ helmets.

An American platoon was pinned in the riverbed, which had blossomed into a kill zone. One squad and the radio operator were trapped in a wheat field on the far side. An improvised bomb had just exploded in their midst. The blast wave had blown the soldiers down, and, though the platoon did not yet know it, killed a soldier on the trail.

The platoon leader, company executive officer and another squad crouched exposed at a stream junction, trying to arrange help as the bomb’s smoke drifted through the misty rain. A third squad was on the slope behind them, returning fire.

Two footbridges separated the three American groups. No one could run across them during fire like this.

Another pitched firefight in a ravine in eastern Afghanistan had begun, shaped by factors that have made the war against the Taliban seem unending: grueling terrain that favors ambushes and prevents American soldiers from massing; villages in thorough collaboration with insurgents; and experienced adversaries each fighting in concert with its abilities and advantages.

The Taliban fighters had struck with surprise, stealth and familiarity with the ground, executing the sort of ambush that Afghan guerrillas have mastered for generations.

The Americans, seasoned by years of war here and in Iraq, would seek to create an intricately violent response, designed to undo the odds, save the pinned soldiers and kill the insurgents who, for a moment, had shown themselves.

Second Lt. Justin R. Smith, the platoon leader, called for help from an artillery battery, then radioed Sgt. Craig W. Tanner, the squad leader on the opposite side. Each man had found what cover he could. The platoon would fight where it was.

“Lead element: stand by where you’re at,” the lieutenant said. “If you come back across the river you’re going to expose yourself.” He glanced across the water at his radio operator, Specialist Robert Soto. “Soto!” he shouted. “Stay there! Stay! There!”

There are moments in many firefights that verge on chaos. This was one of them. Specialist Soto’s ears were ringing. He could not hear. “We gotta move!” he shouted.

The American patrol had left Korangal Outpost, the base for Company B of the First Battalion, 26th Infantry, on Wednesday, roughly an hour before the ambush. Its mission had been to enter the village of Laneyal and meet with local elders.

Preparing for the mission, the company’s Second Platoon had predicted a fight. The platoon had ambushed a Taliban unit a few days before, killing at least 13 insurgents. The Taliban would want revenge, said Sgt. First Class Thomas Wright, the platoon sergeant, and a patrol to Laneyal meant a walk into a bad village.

Afghanistan is myriad wars within a war, with varying terrain, climates, economies and insurgent groups creating a puzzle of shifting contests for influence. The Korangal Valley is the center of one of the most vicious contests of all.

Relatively few Arabs or foreigners come here, the company’s officers say. But the Korangalis, a hardened and isolated people with their own language, have managed to lock the American Army into a bloody standoff for a small space for more than three years.

The Korangalis have fought, the officers say, in part because they support the Taliban and in part because they are loggers and the Afghan government banned almost all timber cutting, putting local men out of work.

Korangal Outpost itself symbolizes the dispute. It occupies a former sawmill, and the mill’s displaced owner is a main organizer of the insurgency. The Taliban pay the best wages in the valley now, the officers said.

Company B’s relations with local villagers are cordial but ultimately unhelpful, undermined by deception. After the platoon ambushed the Taliban patrol several days earlier, for instance, elders arrived at the outpost to say that the Americans had shot up a search party of local men who were looking for a lost girl. The company commander, Capt. James C. Howell, told the elders it was one of the most ridiculous lies he had ever heard.

The platoon reached Aliabad, the village on the slope opposite Laneyal, and began the descent down a stone staircase to the river. On the way down they met Zarin, an elder from Laneyal, who was heading up.

Zarin exchanged pleasantries and shook hands with Company B’s executive officer, First Lt. John P. Rodriguez, and bounded quickly away.

The platoon continued on. With several soldiers remaining in Aliabad with guns aimed at the opposite side, two squads and the officers crossed a narrow footbridge and reached a point where two branches of the river converge.

Then the lead squad crossed the second bridge, entering a terraced wheat field. The Taliban let the first five men cross, then detonated the bomb under Pfc. Richard A. Dewater, 21, as he walked up the trail. It was a huge explosion, heaving dirt and rock high in the air.

The Taliban opened fire. The ambush was on.

Lieutenant Smith asked Sergeant Tanner for a report. The blast had blown the sergeant off his feet, spinning him around and throwing him down. He was disoriented. He said he thought he had all of his men.

As the firing neared its peak, Lieutenant Smith ordered the men around him to disperse so they could not all be struck by a single burst of fire. Then he provided covering fire so the artillery observer and a machine gun team could run back across the first bridge, gain elevation in Aliabad and cover the squad in the field.

A soldier caught in an ambush — looking for safety while returning fire, with ears ringing and skin pouring sweat — can feel utterly alone, trapped in a box of crisscrossing lead and terrifying sound, with death an instant away.

He is actually part of something more complicated. Bullets flew down into the riverbed from three sides. But as the lieutenants worked their radios, soldiers outside the kill zone were trying to erode the Taliban’s opening advantage.

Within the platoon, the squad in the rear of the column set up its machine guns and was firing on several of the Taliban shooting positions. A group of Afghan National Army soldiers, directed by a Marine corporal, was also firing.

In American firebases on ridges along the valley, soldiers with heavier machine guns and automatic grenade launchers focused on Afghan buildings in three villages — Donga, Laneyal and Darbart — from where the trapped platoon was taking fire.

Farther back, at Company B’s outpost, a pair of Air Force noncommissioned officers was directing aircraft into position, while two 120-millimeter mortars were firing high-explosive and white phosphorus rounds at targets the platoon had identified.

Alternately crouched and standing on the open rock spur, the lieutenants rushed to influence the fight and plan an escape from the trap. Once the American response began to build and the Taliban firing subsided, Lieutenant Rodriguez told Lieutenant Smith, they would throw smoke grenades along the river bank and pull back.

Specialist Soto could not wait. After mortar rounds began landing, he and a photographer for The New York Times dashed down the bank, splashed into the chest-deep brown river, lunged across the current and crawled out on the opposite side.

They staggered up the Aliabad slope and slipped behind a building as the platoon’s guns fired, covering their dash. They had made it out of the worst of the kill zone.

The Taliban kept firing. The American squad in the wheat field, perhaps 50 yards away, radioed that insurgents were getting closer and that the soldiers risked being overrun. At almost the same time, Air Force Staff Sgt. Kenneth Walker radioed Lieutenant Rodriguez with news that the first 500-pound aircraft bomb was about to strike.

“They’re going to do the drop in, like, 30 seconds!” Lieutenant Rodriguez shouted to Lieutenant Smith. “Let your boys know!”

The aircraft had arrived just in time. A Taliban fighter appeared behind a stone fence. He was almost atop the soldiers in the field.

“We got muzzle flashes,” Lieutenant Smith said, and now the Americans had clear targets. The stones beside where the Taliban fighter had stood began to splinter as the platoon’s bullets struck it. Then the satellite-guided bomb whooshed in and exploded.

Two stray rocket-propelled grenades landed to the lieutenants’ left side. But the Taliban’s firing decreased, as if the insurgents, experienced with American tactics, had sensed the battle shifting and were being ordered back.

The platoon threw smoke grenades, obscuring visibility in the riverbed. Five soldiers appeared at the edge of the green stand of wheat, running toward the officers.

They leapt into the water. The two lieutenants had spent the fight exposed; now they ran back across the first footbridge. The platoon climbed the steep staircase into Aliabad and took cover.

As the soldiers panted for air, they cursed Zarin, the elder who had walked through the kill zone just before the ambush; he had set them up, they said.

Two more airstrikes blew apart two buildings on the opposite side from where the Taliban had been firing. The battle quieted.

Pfc. Rogger J. Webb looked at Specialist Soto, the last man to cross the bridge before the bomb had exploded on the trail. “Man, I thought —” he said.

“You thought I was gone?” Specialist Soto said.

Private Webb nodded. The platoon did a head count and came to an awful realization: Private Dewater was missing. He had walked into the wheat field with the squad. He had not run out.

Private Webb swore. Had the Taliban captured him? Had he been struck during the fight? The soldiers did not know. The platoon retraced its steps toward Laneyal as the sun set.

Back at the outpost, American and Afghan soldiers flowed out into the darkness. The Afghans would scour the riverbed in case the missing soldier had ended up in the water. The captain told the platoons to be prepared to search every house in the villages, in case the Taliban had dragged him off.

Wearing night-vision equipment, the platoon combed the ambush site in the rain. The company waited for news. At 8:10 p.m., Specialist Soto’s strained voice came over the radio.

“Break, break, break,” he said, using the convention for stopping all conversations.

Everyone knew what it meant. Lieutenant Smith’s voice replaced Specialist Soto’s. “We found him,” he said. The first explosion had killed Private Dewater and lifted his body into a tree.

“Roger,” the captain answered. “Understand all.”

Sgt. Matthew R. Kuhn climbed the branches to free the missing man. In an instant, Second Platoon’s mission had changed. It would carry Private Dewater on the first steps of his journey home.

The soldiers gently rested their friend onto a stretcher, organized into teams of litter bearers and began the long walk back, over the two footbridges, up the Aliabad staircase and past the other soldiers and Marines, who provided security and stood quietly in respect.

He was the fourth member of Second Platoon killed during nine months in the valley.

When the platoon reached its outpost at midnight, the company’s commander, Captain Howell, was waiting. The soldiers gathered in the darkness. The captain spoke of his pride in the platoon and offered the first of many words of condolence.

“There is nothing I can say or anybody else can say that will bring Dewater back,” he said, and reminded the platoon of its own ambush of the Taliban the week before. “But the best thing we can do for him is to continue to do the type of stuff that you guys did the other day.”

The soldiers headed for the plywood shacks where they live, for the remainder of a night in which almost no one would sleep.

In the morning they disassembled and cleaned their weapons and recalled their friend as they played his favorite song: “Nothing Else Matters,” by Metallica. A heap of their bloody clothes burned in a small fire.

Private Dewater had been a combat replacement in the platoon: “A real humble dude, and totally positive about everything we did,” Specialist Soto said.

His body had already been flown off the outpost by helicopter in the night, the next step of the trip back to the United States.

A few hours later, the soldiers slipped into their body armor and helmets, hoisted their weapons and walked back out for an overnight patrol.


There is a great audio & photo at the link