Friday, July 31, 2009

Pictured: U.S. missile defence test hailed a success as North Korea tensions rise

The latest US missile defence test, conducted last night in Hawaii waters, was deemed a success as tensions continue with North Korea over that country's missile programme.

A short-range ballistic missile was fired from the Pacific Missile Range Facility on the island of Kauai and then was shot down by a three-stage interceptor missile from a destroyer, the USS Hopper.

The test, conducted by the Navy and the Department of Defense's Missile Defence Agency, marked the 23rd firing by ships equipped with the Aegis ballistic missile defense system.

With the latest test, there have been 19 successes, including the shooting down of a dead US spy satellite last year.

On July 4, North Korea violated UN Security Council resolutions by sending seven ballistic missiles into waters off its east coast.

There had been speculation North Korea would launch a missile toward Hawaii - about 4,500 miles away - to coincide with the July 4 Independence Day holiday in the US.

Two other Navy ships participated in Thursday's test, dubbed 'Stellar Avenger'.

According to a Missile Defence Agency statement, the Hopper fired and guided an SM-3 Block IA missile that intercepted the target missile about 100 miles above the Pacific Ocean.

Meanwhile, the USS O'Kane simulated an engagement and the USS Lake Erie detected and tracked the target, the agency said.

The statement said the Hopper's weapons system guided its missile to a 'direct body to body hit, approximately two minutes after leaving the ship.'

The Lake Erie used an advanced version of the Aegis system in a simulation to evaluate how it would function with a SM-3 Block IB missile.

Next year, the ship is to use the system to fire a new SM-3 Block IB, which features an improved propulsion system, signal processor and warhead seeker.

Elsewhere, North Korea's seizure of a South Korean fishing boat and its four crew members raised fears that the communist nation could use the incident to exert pressure on Seoul amid badly strained ties between the rival countries.

The apprehension yesterday follows the North's sentencing of two American journalists to 12 years of hard labour last month and its monthslong detention of a South Korean citizen.

Some analysts warn the fishermen could face a similar fate if Pyongyang is tempted to use the case as leverage to pressure Seoul.

'In similar cases in the past, the North returned fishermen after four to five days of investigation,' said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at Seoul's University of North Korean Studies.

'But considering the current tension between the two sides, it is possible for the North to hold them much longer, citing its investigation.'

South Korea said the 29-ton fishing boat '800 Yeonan' was towed away by a North Korean patrol boat Thursday morning after it crossed into the North's eastern waters, apparently because its satellite navigation system malfunctioned.

Seoul urged the North to free the boat and crew, citing Seoul's repatriation of North Korean fishing boats that drifted into its waters in recent years.

South Korea allowed a North Korean patrol vessel to tow away a North Korean fishing boat that crossed into the countries' disputed western maritime border on Thursday, according to South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The North said it was investigating the incident and would keep Seoul informed of developments. It did not give further details, including the conditions of the fishermen, and Pyongyang's state news agency carried no reports on it.

Tensions on the divided Korean peninsula reached a fever pitch last month after the South played an active role in getting the UN Security Council to punish Pyongyang with tough sanctions following its nuclear and missile tests.

Relations between the two have suffered dramatically since a pro-US, conservative government took office in Seoul last year, advocating a tougher policy on the North.

Pyongyang cut off most ties in retaliation and halted all major joint projects except an industrial complex located just across the border in the North.

A South Korean worker has been held at the complex since March for allegedly denouncing its political system. Seoul has repeatedly demanded his release, but so far the North has not allowed any access to him.

The North also arrested two US journalists on March 17 near the North's border with China, and sentenced them to 12 years of hard labor last month for entering the country illegally and for 'hostile acts.' Laura Ling and Euna Lee work for former US Vice President Al Gore's California-based Current TV media group.

Kim Yong-hyun, a North Korean expert at Seoul's Dongguk University, said Pyongyang may choose to hold the boat's crew for a while, but the case is too minor to be used for political purposes.

'It's a simple crossing of the border. I think it's different from the two other cases,' Kim said. 'But it is still possible that the North could hold the fishermen longer than usual.'

North and South Korea are technically still at war because the 1950-53 Korean War ended with a cease-fire, not a peace treaty. Both keep a close watch on their land and sea borders.

Maritime incidents between the two sides involving fishing boats and other commercial vessels occur from time to time and are generally resolved amicably. However, the countries' disputed western maritime border has been the scene of deadly fighting in the past.

In June 2002, six South Korean troops died when the North sank a South Korean patrol boat in the area. In June 1999, about 30 North Korean sailors were believed to have died when their boat sank in a clash with South Korea, the first naval conflict between the two sides since the Korean War.


Thursday, July 30, 2009

Venezuela: 'Freedom of expression must be limited'

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) - Venezuela's top prosecutor insisted Thursday that freedom of expression in Venezuela "must be limited," and proposed legislation that would slap additional restrictions on the country's news media.

The new law would punish the owners of radio stations, television channels and newspapers that have attempted to "cause panic" and "disturb social peace," Attorney General Luisa Ortega said.

It also would punish those media owners who "manipulate the news with the purpose of transmitting a false perception of the facts."

"Freedom of expression must be limited," Ortega said.

Ortega urged lawmakers to consider her suggestions as they move forward with a proposed law that would punish as-yet-undefined "media crimes." The National Assembly, which is controlled by allies of President Hugo Chavez, is expected to approve the bill in coming months.

Chavez's administration is slowly tightening its grip over the news media, raising concerns among watchdog and human rights groups, which accuse the government of trying to stifle dissent.

Venezuela's telecommunications commission notified 50 radio stations earlier this week that their broadcast licenses could be revoked because they failed to update their registrations. Commission chief Diosdado Cabello said a final determination on the licenses will be made following investigations. He said authorities might also seize broadcasting equipment.

Nearly 200 other broadcasters that did not meet a June deadline to register also will be investigated, but have not yet been formally notified, Cabello said.

Chavez denies that he intends to silence critics, saying that his government fully respects freedom of expression.


Right out of the Hezbollah handbook, the real one, not the one making the rounds.

Pakistani villagers re-create anti-Taliban militia

SULTANWAS, Pakistan (AP) - Village leaders in a former Taliban stronghold are rebuilding their own militia to protect the area from militants holding out in nearby hills after fleeing the Pakistani army's offensive last spring.

The military operation in the Swat Valley and surrounding areas is winding down, but sporadic fighting persists - a sign that the Taliban have not given up. Locals say Taliban fighters are hiding in the hills outside Sultanwas, a village pulverized by air strikes and tanks during Pakistan's offensive.

So villagers are leaving nothing to chance: They have reorganized their own militia and say they are talking to nearby villages to join forces.

Pakistan's authorities say such militias, known as lashkars, can prevent the Taliban from rebounding in the strategic area north of the capital. The groups have been compared to Iraq's Awakening Councils, which helped U.S. forces turn the tide against al-Qaida there.

"The army is protecting the main road, and we are protecting the village," said one of the militiamen, Abdul Rauf, 43.

The concept is an old one in Pakistan, where lashkars have augmented security in the lawless tribal belt along the Afghan border. But they have not been a feature of the more peaceful districts such as Buner, which includes Sultanwas, and in the nearby Swat Valley.

Nevertheless, authorities have encouraged the local militias.

They are "a great assistance, support to the government agencies, to law enforcement", said army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas.

Sultanwas was the first village in the area to form its own defense force against the Taliban in April, the army and residents say. But the fighters withdrew after receiving assurances from a local administrator that the militants would not enter. The administrator was alleged to have been a Taliban sympathizer.

The village soon became one of the militants' southernmost strongholds as the Taliban swept south from Swat. The Taliban later lost control of Sultanwas in the spring offensive by the army.

With the militants gone, militiamen are now organizing patrols and setting up positions.

"We are sure if the Taliban come back, we will fight," said Rauf.

Maj. Gen. Tariq Khan, commander of the paramilitary Frontier Corps, said the militias play an important role because they allow the army to operate elsewhere instead of being tied down guarding villages.

More importantly, they can identify local militants whom outsiders might not recognize.

"The lashkars are the right type of people who control the markets, control the bus stands, and can see who's coming and who's going out," Khan said.

But critics say the militias could become a threat without proper supervision.

"It is quite possible that these armed groups, once they don't have the militants to fight, ... will become a power in their own substance and start oppressing the people of that area," political and defense analyst Ikram Sehgal warned.

There are also doubts as to how effective the often ramshackle forces, armed with their own, often aging, weapons, could be when faced with a sustained assault by the much better trained and armed Taliban.

In Sultanwas, the militia currently numbers about 150 fighters, including a 13-year-old boy and a 65-year-old man. The group's arsenal on display recently consisted of little more than the ubiquitous Kalashnikov rifles and a couple of light machine guns - and a pistol patented in Spain in 1928.

But the fighters themselves appear unperturbed.

"We are ready for self-defense. (The Taliban) can attack at any time, maybe at night, maybe during the day. Maybe they will send a suicide bomber," said Eftikhar Ahmad, 26. "We are living a risky life, but we have no other way. So we accept the Taliban's challenge."


Call them "Community Organizers".

Spain ready to boost Afghan troops

MADRID (AP) - Spain is prepared to boost its long-term troop presence in Afghanistan if conditions there require it, a Spanish official said Thursday.

A government spokesman speaking on customary condition of anonymity said Spain's permanent presence could be elevated from 780 troops to 1,000 after elections in August.

An additional 450 peacekeeping troops are temporarily in Afghanistan to ensure secure elections. Those troops are due to return to Spain, but the spokesman said that 220 soldiers could then be deployed to Afghanistan to bolster the permanent service should the Spanish parliament approve the increase.

Defense Minister Carme Chacon made the same commitment while on a surprise visit to Kabul on Monday. "Should security require it, I'll be the first to go to parliament to ask for a reinforcement," Chacon said shortly after meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Spanish troops were first sent to Afghanistan in 2002 by then prime minister Jose Maria Aznar, a conservative.

Zapatero has continued the deployment, insisting that unlike the Iraq invasion - which his Socialist party opposed - the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan has greater legality and an international mandate.

Late last year Spain's parliament approved lifting a limit on how many troops the country can deploy overseas from 3,000 to a level that parliament can determine. This cleared the way for a possible increase in the country's Afghanistan mission.

A total of 87 Spaniards have died in connection with the Afghanistan mission, most of them in a plane crash in Turkey in May 2003 while returning home and in a helicopter crash in Aug. 2005.


What off, we got the Columbians

US hopeful about exit after a quiet July in Iraq

BAGHDAD (AP) - July is on track to be the least deadly month for American troops and one of the quietest for Iraqis since the war started, a decline in violence that has led the U.S. to consider stepping up its withdrawal plans just a month after pulling its combat forces back from Baghdad and other cities.

The optimism was tempered by two bombings that killed 12 civilians to the north and west of Baghdad on Thursday. While such attacks have become a daily fact of life for Iraqis, overall violence levels remain low.

At least 274 Iraqis have been killed in attacks so far in July, according to an Associated Press count. Only two months - both this year - have seen fewer Iraqis killed since the AP began tracking war-related fatalities in May 2005. There were 242 deaths in January and 225 deaths in May.

Only seven U.S. troop deaths have been recorded this month, the lowest monthly total since the war started in March 2003, according to an AP tally. By contrast, July was the bloodiest month for U.S. forces in the eight-year Afghan war, with at least 41 dead.

The encouraging numbers from Iraq came a month after the Americans turned over responsibility for protecting cities to government forces and withdrew to bases outside urban areas.

A spike in bombings and other attacks that killed about 300 people in the 10 days leading up to the June 30 city withdrawal deadline sparked concern that the move would jeopardize security gains. But that level of violence did not continue into July.

Jim Dobbins, director of national security research at RAND Corp., said the relatively smooth transition was one reason for Wednesday's remarks by Defense Secretary Robert Gates that the U.S. may speed up its withdrawal plans if the trend toward reduced violence continues.

"I think the fact that they were able to (take over the cities) so relatively successfully and the fact that they've continued to try to expand their own autonomy and limit the U.S. role, particularly the visible U.S. role, was a factor," he said. "It demonstrates a sense of self-confidence that the U.S. wants to encourage."

A U.S. Army adviser to the Iraqi military command in Baghdad, Col. Timothy R. Reese, argued in an internal memo that the U.S. should "declare victory and go home" next year, 16 months ahead of schedule.

Reese wrote that the years-long American effort to train, equip and advise Iraqi security forces has reached a point of rapidly diminishing returns, and that Iraqi forces already are good enough to defend the government against the weakened terrorist and insurgent forces that remain.

He concluded that Iraq's Shiite-dominated security forces are capable of defending their country despite corruption, poor management and the inability to resist political pressure.

"The massive partnering efforts of U.S. combat forces with ISF (Iraqi security forces) isn't yielding benefits commensurate with the effort and is now generating its own opposition," Reese wrote in a memo early this month to U.S. military officials in Baghdad.

Reese argued for ending the U.S. military mission in Iraq in August 2010. That is the date when President Barack Obama has said all combat troops will have withdrawn. A residual force of 35,000 to 50,000 troops will remain to continue training and advising the Iraqi security forces until a final pullout by December 2011.

On Wednesday, Gates said after visiting Iraq that conditions have improved so much that it might be possible to accelerate slightly the withdrawal of combat forces this fall. But he did not address the separate question of whether to shrink or eliminate the post-August 2010 residual force.

The rationale for leaving a fairly large residual force beyond August 2010 rests on an expectation that the Iraqi government will require continued American military assistance even after the combat mission ends.

U.S. commanders say security gains are fragile and reversible, and the Iraqi government needs years of assistance in developing a force capable of defending against external threats.

The Iraqi government says it wants the U.S. troops to leave as fast as possible but that its troops need more weapons and equipment.

Spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said the Americans would leave behind a "significant amount of equipment and arms" and the government would buy more "either from the U.S. or from any other source we choose."

Violence has fluctuated throughout this year, but overall levels remain low compared with previous years when sectarian bloodshed between Sunnis and Shiites pushed the country to the brink of civil war.

An average of at least nine Iraqis have been killed in war-related violence each day this year compared with an average of 50 Iraqi deaths per day in 2007 at the height of the conflict.

"Every month that goes by with a substantially diminished level of violence creates the presumption that the Iraqi government is stable and this is not going to fly apart," said John Pike, director of, which follows security and defense issues.

But obstacles remain, including the possibility that violence will re-emerge over the refusal of the Shiite-led government to satisfy demands of the minority Sunnis.

American officials are also concerned that Sunni insurgents will try to exploit Kurdish-Arab tensions to re-ignite violence in northern Iraq. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki plans to visit the self-ruled Kurdish area on Sunday to discuss disputes and other pending issues between the Shiite-dominated central government and the regional government, his adviser Yassin Majeed said.

U.S. commanders have also warned attacks could escalate ahead of national elections next year. The United States has about 130,000 forces in Iraq, with current plans calling for most combat forces - or more than 100,000 troops - to remain in the country until after the Jan. 16 vote.

In the latest examples of the dangers still faced by Iraqi civilians, a bombing in the Diyala provincial capital of Baqouba, north of Baghdad, killed at least seven people, while a suicide truck bomber targeting a police station killed five other people west of the capital, according to police.

The Iraqi government, meanwhile, said seven people were killed when it seized control of a camp housing an Iranian opposition group north of Baghdad on Tuesday - its first confirmation of casualties in the bold raid that defied U.S. calls to avoid force. The People's Mujahedeen Organization of Iran raised its toll to 12 people killed.

About 3,500 ex-Iranian fighters and relatives live in the camp, first set up in 1986 when they helped Saddam Hussein in the Iraq-Iran war. After the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, American troops disarmed the fighters and confined them to the camp, but the Iraqis assumed responsibility for them under this year's security agreement.


U.S. judge orders Guantanamo prisoner Jawad freed

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. judge on Thursday ordered that one of the youngest detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, be released for what is expected to be a trip home to Afghanistan, a case that could be a model for dealing with the other 228 prisoners there.

The release of Mohammed Jawad would be the first under new stricter rules set by the U.S. Congress for dealing with the detainees held at the prison at a U.S. naval base in Cuba, which President Barack Obama has pledged to close by mid-January 2010.

The Obama administration insisted it still was weighing a criminal case in U.S. federal court against Jawad for allegedly tossing a grenade that wounded two U.S. soldiers and their interpreter in Kabul in late 2002, but that no decision has been made.

"Enough has been imposed on this young man," U.S. District Judge Ellen Huvelle said in a packed courtroom. She said she hoped Jawad would be on his way to Afghanistan by August 24 but declined to order the timing and methods for his move.

Huvelle, who has had fiery exchanges with the administration over the case, noted that Jawad has been held at the prison for more than six years but much of the evidence had been tossed out because it had been obtained through torture.

She gave the government until Aug 6. to file the necessary paperwork with Congress for his transfer and then the administration would have to wait 15 days before moving him under the rules set by Congress.


Government lawyers told Huvelle that they were considering a criminal case against Jawad, which could interfere with his repatriation. They have told the court they have new evidence against him, which his lawyers dispute.

"The criminal investigation is continuing," Deputy Assistant Attorney General Ian Gershengorn told the judge.

If U.S. prosecutors pursue criminal charges and want to bring Jawad to U.S. soil for trial and detention, they would have to notify Congress and wait 45 days before moving him.

But Huvelle, who was overseeing Jawad's case seeking release from Guantanamo, said she saw substantial hurdles for the government if it tries to pursue such a case, including his mental capacity and whether they could conduct a speedy trial.

Jawad is one of the youngest detainees. His lawyers argue that he was about 12 when he was arrested in 2002 but the Pentagon disputes that and has said bone scans indicated he had turned 18 when he was sent to Guantanamo in early 2003.

Even as they consider a criminal case, Gershengorn said the Obama administration was negotiating the terms of Jawad's transfer with the Afghan government. Afghan officials have repeatedly asked that he be returned and his lawyers have said they expect Jawad to be set free once there.

Jawad's attorney, Air Force Major David Frakt, said when he began working on this case, he was told by others that he should not expect to win because the "deck was stacked" against them.

"I always believed that justice would prevail," an emotional Frakt told Reuters. He tried to convince the judge to bar the military from shackling Jawad or placing a hood over his head while he was transported home.

But Huvelle declined to address specifics other than to order that be treated humanely while also maintaining necessary security precautions.


Central Park horror leaves Google engineer Blair-Goldensohn in coma

UPDATE: The Google genius struck in the head by a massive Central Park tree branch is showing signs of improvement, relatives said Thursday.

A Google genius was in a coma Wednesday night after a rotting branch snapped off a tree in Central Park and smashed him in the head.

Sasha Blair-Goldensohn was walking to work through the park when a 100-pound limb came crashing from a massive pin oak tree near W. 63rd St.

The 33-year-old computer engineer and father of two was taken to New York-Presbyterian Hospital Weill Cornell Medical Center after the 8 a.m. accident and was in intensive care.

"I'm not worried about Sasha because he has IQ to spare," uncle Marty Goldensohn told the Daily News while keeping vigil at the hospital Wednesday night.

He said Blair-Goldensohn had been unconscious since the accident.

Doctors performed a procedure to relieve swelling and put him on a ventilator to help him breathe because his lung was damaged by the branch.

The family was hoping Blair-Goldensohn would "wake up" after the pressure on his brain subsided, the uncle said.

"He hasn't really woken up," the uncle said, although the family at first thought he had responded to his grandparents. "He's young and healthy, we're hopeful."

The victim's wife, Rebecca, declined comment. The couple, who live on the upper West Side, have two young children - Sophie, 2, and Theo, an infant.

His mother, journalist Gwenda Blair, was flying back to the city to be by her son's bedside. "We're a very close family," Goldensohn said.

Blair-Goldensohn grew up in the city, went to Hunter College High School and Amherst, and earned a Ph.D from Columbia University in 2007.

He works as a computer engineer in Google's Manhattan offices; he calls himself a "high seas pirate" on his company profile and describes his superpower as "snacking."

He was on his way to work, enjoying a summer stroll through the park, when the tree limb cracked.

"It was a pretty big branch of a tree," said Alan Gottdank, 70, a high school math teacher who saw the aftermath of the mishap.

After the accident, the Parks Department inspected trees in the area and found them to be in good shape - except for the corroded branch that fell.

"The limb was removed and found to be dead and rotted," the agency said in a statement.

Parkgoers were nonplussed by the random calamity.

"You take your chances no matter where you go in the park," said John May, 48, a computer analyst. "You can't live under a rock - everywhere in the park there is a tree!"


microsoft, or china?

US surgeons drafted in as British medics exhausted by casualty surge

The surge in British casualties in Afghanistan has left military surgeons so exhausted that a US surgical team has been drafted in to help.

The British doctors have also been overwhelmed with casualties from other nations, including US Marines, Afghan troops and civilians.

Extra British plastic surgeons have had to be sent to the field hospital at Camp Bastion in central Helmand along with additional X-ray technicians and specialist nurses.

The Ministry of Defence revealed that 57 soldiers had been wounded in action in the first two weeks of this month, the worst casualty figure since British troops deployed to Helmand province in 2006. The previous highest toll of those injured, 46, was in June — but that was for the whole month. In the same two-week period, 15 soldiers were killed.

Of the 57 wounded in action, nine were categorised as “very seriously injured” with life-threatening wounds, and seven were “seriously injured”.

In one week alone this month, 157 wounded people were brought to the Bastion field hospital for treatment, although they were not all British. The toll was recorded during Operation Panther’s Claw, launched on June 19 to sweep the Taleban out of central Helmand.

Surgeon Rear-Admiral Lionel Jarvis, Assistant Chief of Defence Staff (health), said: “Because of exhaustion among our surgeons and the very long hours that they were working, we talked to our coalition colleagues and a surgical team from one of the US facilities has moved temporarily down to reinforce the facility in Bastion.”

Colonel Peter Mahoney, defence professor of anaesthesia and critical care at the Royal Centre of Defence Medicine at Selly Oak in Birmingham, gave a graphic description of the emotional strains suffered by the British medical staff at the Bastion hospital.

“It has been very stressful dealing with all these young people, cutting away the camouflage [uniform] that you know is one of your own. It’s very distressing,” he said at a press conference at the MoD to announce the latest casualty figures.

Already this year 61 British troops have been seriously or very seriously injured, compared with 65 for the whole of 2008.

It was also revealed that additional beds may have to be provided at the defence rehabilitation centre at Headley Court, near Dorking, Surrey, to cater for the rise in military patients who have had amputations. Last month there were 30 new patients at the Selly Oak hospital and at Headley Court — double the number that have been admitted at any time this year. The figure is likely to be exceeded when the July total is published.

The casualty figures show that since 2001, when British troops were first sent to Afghanistan, 753 Service personnel have been treated for battle wounds.

The scale of the wounded figures so far this year has underlined the intensity of the fighting in Helmand where British soldiers are based.

In 2006 85 were wounded in action, although troops did not deploy until April of that year. In 2007 the figure rose to 234, then to 235 last year. A total of 199 have been wounded up to July 15 this year.

Dr Kate Harrison, who is responsible for compiling the injury figures for the MoD, dismissed claims that the casualty tolls released did not reflect the true total.

“We hide nothing. These figures are what comes to us from the chain of command,” she said.

The Bastion hospital was not only treating wounded British personnel, she said. The medical teams were also dealing with injured Americans, Danes and Estonians serving in Helmand as well as Afghan troops and civilians.

The Defence Medical Service is trying to recruit more specialist doctors and nursing staff to handle the flow of casualties. The service has a requirement for 150 specialist nurses but that total has still to be met.

It was also revealed that there have been two recorded cases of swine flu among personnel in Afghanistan.


Tuesday, July 28, 2009

In Battle, Hunches Prove to Be Valuable

The sight was not that unusual, at least not for Mosul, Iraq, on a summer morning: a car parked on the sidewalk, facing opposite traffic, its windows rolled up tight. Two young boys stared out the back window, kindergarten age maybe, their faces leaning together as if to share a whisper.

The soldier patrolling closest to the car stopped. It had to be hot in there; it was 120 degrees outside. “Permission to approach, sir, to give them some water,” the soldier said to Sgt. First Class Edward Tierney, who led the nine-man patrol that morning.

“I said no — no,” Sergeant Tierney said in a telephone interview from Afghanistan. He said he had an urge to move back before he knew why: “My body suddenly got cooler; you know, that danger feeling.”

The United States military has spent billions on hardware, like signal jamming technology, to detect and destroy what the military calls improvised explosive devices, or I.E.D.’s, the roadside bombs that have proved to be the greatest threat in Iraq and now in Afghanistan, where Sergeant Tierney is training soldiers to foil bomb attacks.

Still, high-tech gear, while helping to reduce casualties, remains a mere supplement to the most sensitive detection system of all — the human brain. Troops on the ground, using only their senses and experience, are responsible for foiling many I.E.D. attacks, and, like Sergeant Tierney, they often cite a gut feeling or a hunch as their first clue.

Everyone has hunches — about friends’ motives, about the stock market, about when to fold a hand of poker and when to hold it. But United States troops are now at the center of a large effort to understand how it is that in a life-or-death situation, some people’s brains can sense danger and act on it well before others’ do.

Experience matters, of course: if you have seen something before, you are more likely to anticipate it the next time. And yet, recent research suggests that something else is at work, too.

Small differences in how the brain processes images, how well it reads emotions and how it manages surges in stress hormones help explain why some people sense imminent danger before most others do.

Studies of members of the Army Green Berets and Navy Seals, for example, have found that in threatening situations they experience about the same rush of the stress hormone cortisol as any other soldier does. But their levels typically drop off faster than less well-trained troops, much faster in some cases.

In the past two years, an Army researcher, Steven Burnett, has overseen a study into human perception and bomb detection involving about 800 military men and women. Researchers have conducted exhaustive interviews with experienced fighters. They have administered personality tests and measured depth perception, vigilance and related abilities. The troops have competed to find bombs in photographs, videos, virtual reality simulations and on the ground in mock exercises.

The study complements a growing body of work suggesting that the speed with which the brain reads and interprets sensations like the feelings in one’s own body and emotions in the body language of others is central to avoiding imminent threats.

“Not long ago people thought of emotions as old stuff, as just feelings — feelings that had little to do with rational decision making, or that got in the way of it,” said Dr. Antonio Damasio, director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California. “Now that position has reversed. We understand emotions as practical action programs that work to solve a problem, often before we’re conscious of it. These processes are at work continually, in pilots, leaders of expeditions, parents, all of us.”

Seeing What Others Miss

The patrol through Mosul’s main marketplace never became routine, not once, not after the 10th time or the 40th. A divot in the gravel, a slight shadow in a ditch, a pile of discarded cans; any one could be deadly; every one raised the same question: Is there something — anything — out of place here?

Clearing a road of bombs is one of the least glamorous and most dangerous jobs on the planet. It is also one of the most important. In May, coalition forces found 465 of them in Afghanistan and 333 in Iraq. The troops foiled more than half the traps over all — but about 10 percent of the bombs killed or maimed a soldier or a Marine.

“We had indicators we’d look for, but you’d really have to be aware of everything, every detail,” said Sergeant Tierney, whose unit was working with the Iraqi police in that summer of 2004.

In recent years, the bombs have become more powerful, the hiding places ever more devious. Bombs in fake rocks. Bombs in poured concrete, built into curbs. Bombs triggered by decoy bombs.

“On one route sweep mission, there was a noticeable I.E.D. in the middle of the road, but it was a decoy,” said Lt. Donovan Campbell, who in 2004 led a Marine platoon for seven months of heavy fighting in Ramadi and wrote a vivid book, “Joker One,” about the experience. “The real bomb was encased in concrete, a hundred meters away, in the midst of rubble. One of my Marines spotted it. He said, ‘That block looks too symmetrical, too perfect.’ ”

Lieutenant Campbell had the area cleared and the bomb destroyed.

“Unless you know what rubble in that part of Iraq looks like, there’s no way you’d see that,” he said. “I had two guys, one we called Hound Dog, who were really good at spotting things that didn’t fit.”

The men and women who performed best in the Army’s I.E.D. detection study had the sort of knowledge gained through experience, according to a preliminary analysis of the results; but many also had superb depth perception and a keen ability to sustain intense focus for long periods. The ability to pick odd shapes masked in complex backgrounds — a “Where’s Waldo” type of skill that some call anomaly detection — also predicted performance on some of the roadside bomb simulations.

“Some of these things cannot be trained, obviously,” said Jennifer Murphy, a psychologist at the Army Research Institute and the principal author of the I.E.D. study. “But some may be; these are fighters who become very sensitive to small changes in the environment. They’ll clear the same road every day and notice ridiculously subtle things: this rock was not here yesterday.”

In a study that appeared last month, neuroscientists at Princeton University demonstrated just how sensitive this visual ability is — and how a gut feeling may arise before a person becomes conscious of what the brain has registered.

They had students try to pick out figures — people or cars — in a series of photos that flashed by on a computer screen. The pictures flashed by four at a time, and the participants were told to scan only two of them, either those above and below the center point, or those to the left and right. Eye-tracking confirmed that they did just that.

But brain scans showed that the students’ brains registered the presence of people or cars even when the figures appeared in photos that they were not paying attention to. They got better at it, too, with training.

Some people’s brains were almost twice as fast at detecting the figures as others’. “It appears that the brain primes the whole visual system to be strongly sensitive to categories of visual input,” kinds of things to look for, said Marius V. Peelen, a neuroscientist at Princeton and a co-author of the study with Li Fei-Fei and Sabine Kastner. “And apparently some people’s visual system processes things much faster than others’.”

Something in the Air

A soldier or Marine could have X-ray vision and never see most I.E.D.’s, however. Veterans say that those who are most sensitive to the presence of the bombs not only pick up small details but also have the ability to step back and observe the bigger picture: extra tension in the air, unusual rhythms in Iraqi daily life, oddities in behavior.

“One afternoon I remember turning down a road in Baghdad we were very familiar with, and there’s no one out — very creepy for that time of day,” said Sgt. Don Gomez, a spokesman for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, who took part in the invasion and later, in 2005, drove a general in and around Baghdad.

Trash was heaped in a spot along the street where Sergeant Gomez and other drivers in the convoy had not seen it before, so they gave it a wide berth.

“We later called it in to an explosives team and, sure enough, they found one and detonated it — the thing left a huge crater,” he said.

As the brain tallies cues, big and small, consciously and not, it may send out an alarm before a person fully understands why.

In a landmark experiment in 1997, researchers at the University of Iowa had people gamble on a simple card game. Each participant was spotted $2,000 and had to choose cards from any of four decks. The cards offered immediate rewards, of $50 or $100, and the occasional card carried a penalty. But the game was rigged: the penalties in two of the decks were modest and in the other two decks were large.

The pattern was unpredictable, but on average the players reported “liking” some decks better than others by the 50th card to the 80th card drawn before they could fully explain why. Their bodies usually tensed up — subtly, but significantly, according to careful measures of sweat — in a few people as early as about the 10th card drawn, according to the authors, Dr. Damasio; his wife, Dr. Hanna Damasio; Dr. Antoine Bechara; and Dr. Daniel Tranel.

In a study published in May, researchers at King’s College in London did brain scans of people playing the gambling game used in the University of Iowa study. Several brain regions were particularly active, including the orbitofrontal cortex, which is involved in decision making, and the insula, where the brain is thought to register the diverse sensations coming from around the body and interpret them as a cohesive feeling — that cooling sensation of danger. In some brains, the alarm appears to sound earlier, and perhaps more intensely, than average.

Gut feelings about potential threats or opportunities are not always correct, and neuroscientists debate the conditions under which the feeling precedes the conscious awareness of the clues themselves. But the system evolved for survival, and, in some people, is apparently exquisitely sensitive, the findings suggest.

Mastering the Fear

One thing did not quite fit on the morning of Sergeant Tierney’s patrol in Mosul. The nine soldiers left the police station around 9 a.m., but they did not get their usual greeting. No one shot at them or fired a rocket-propelled grenade. Minutes passed, and nothing.

The soldiers walked the road in an odd silence, scanning the landscape for evidence of I.E.D.’s and trying to stay alert for an attack from insurgents. In war, anxiety can run as high as the Iraqi heat, and neuroscientists say that the most perceptive, observant brain on earth will not pick up subtle clues if it is overwhelmed by stress.

In the Army study of I.E.D. detection, researchers found that troops who were good at spotting bombs in simulations tended to think of themselves as predators, not prey. That frame of mind by itself may work to reduce anxiety, experts say.

The brains of elite troops also appear to register perceived threats in a different way from the average enlistee, said Dr. Martin P. Paulus, a psychiatrist at the University of California, San Diego, and the V.A. San Diego Healthcare System. At the sight of angry faces, members of the Navy Seals show significantly higher activation in the insula than regular soldiers, according to a just-completed study.

“The big question is whether these differences perceiving threat are natural, or due to training,” Dr. Paulus said.

That morning in Mosul, Sergeant Tierney gave the command to fall back. The soldier who had asked to approach the car had just time enough to turn before the bomb exploded. Shrapnel clawed the side of his face; the shock wave threw the others to the ground. The two young boys were gone: killed in the blast, almost certainly, he said.

Since then, Sergeant Tierney has often run back the tape in his head, looking for the detail that tipped him off. Maybe it was the angle of the car, or the location; maybe the absence of an attack, the sleepiness in the market: perhaps the sum of all of the above.

“I can’t point to one thing,” he said. “I just had that feeling you have when you walk out of the house and know you forgot something — you got your keys, it’s not that — and need a few moments to figure out what it is.”

He added, “I feel very fortunate none of my men were killed or badly wounded.”


‘New Mumbai dossier reveals Pak willingness’

LAHORE: A dossier on the Mumbai attacks, given by Islamabad to New Delhi may convince India that it is dealing with a reformed neighbour and that there is a need to change the rules of engagement. A report in Hindustan Times assessed that Pakistan unequivocally admitted in the 36-page document that the attacks were “planned, funded and facilitated” in its territory by activists of Lashkar-e-Tayyaba. The dossier said the investigators “unanimously agreed that substantial incriminating evidence was available on the record directly connecting the accused with the commission of the offence”, according to the newspaper. Pakistan had initially denied its citizens had carried out the attacks or that they were planned on its soil. It had even denied Ajmal Kasab, the sole surviving 26/11 terrorist, was a Pakistani. daily times monitor
Daily Times

obama, just saying.

Proper Fit Of Massive Penetrator Weapon On B-2 Bomber Verified

Northrop Grumman has moved the U.S. Air Force a critical step closer to being able to drop a from the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber. 30,000 pound penetrator weapon On April 28, an Air Force team, a Northrop Grumman-led aircraft contractor team and a Boeing-led weapon contractor team verified that the equipment required to integrate the new Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP) on the B-2 -- the hardware that holds the MOP inside the weapons bay, the weapon itself, and the hardware used by the aircrew to command and release the weapon -- will fit together properly inside the aircraft. Northrop Grumman is the Air Force's prime contractor for the B-2, the flagship of the nation's long-range strike arsenal. Boeing is the prime contractor for the MOP, and a subcontractor to Northrop Grumman on the B-2 MOP integration effort. "This fit check represents a significant step in identifying and mitigating technical risks associated with integrating the MOP onto the B-2," said Col. Kevin Harms, USAF, Commander, 702nd Aeronautical Systems Group. Dave Mazur, vice president and B-2 program manager for Northrop Grumman's Aerospace Systems sector agreed. "The things we learned by doing this test will help us execute any future B-2 MOP integration program in a faster, more cost-effective manner." The government/contractor team conducted the fit check at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., the operational home of the B-2 fleet, using the B-2 Weapons Load Trainer -- a device that simulates the interior size and shape of the aircraft's weapons bays -- and a high fidelity mock-up of the MOP. The trainer allows 509th Bomb Wing personnel to practice loading B-2 weapons without taking an aircraft out of service. The MOP is a GPS-guided weapon containing more than 5,300 pounds of conventional explosives inside a 20.5-foot long bomb body of hardened steel. It is designed to penetrate dirt, rock and reinforced concrete to reach enemy bunker or tunnel installations. The B-2 will be capable of carrying two MOPs, one in each weapons bay. The B-2 currently carries up to 40,000 pounds of conventional ordnance. For example, it can deliver 80 independently targeted 500-lb class bombs from its smart bomb rack assembly; or up to 16 2,000-lb class weapons from its rotary launcher. Integration of the MOP on the B-2 is the latest in a series of modernization programs that Northrop Grumman and its subcontractors have undertaken with the Air Force to ensure that the aircraft remains fully capable against evolving threats. The B-2 Spirit stealth bomber is one of the most survivable aircraft in the world. It remains the only long-range, large-payload aircraft that can penetrate deeply into protected airspace. In concert with the Air Force's air superiority fleet, which provides airspace control, and the Air Force's tanker fleet, which enables global mobility, the B-2 helps ensure an effective U.S. response to threats anywhere in the world. It can fly more than 6,000 nautical miles unrefueled and more than 10,000 nautical miles with just one aerial refueling, giving it the ability to reach any point on the globe within hours.

Battle-tested Colombian Commandoes Headed to Afghanistan

(CBS) U.S. forces are about to get some much-needed help as they fight the Taliban in Afghanistan, reports CBS News chief foreign affairs correspondent Lara Logan in an exclusive report. The Colombian commandos are U.S. trained and battle-tested from having defeated terrorists in their own country.

Ten years ago, they didn't even exist. Today, elite Colombian Special Operations troops are preparing to fight alongside the U.S. in Afghanistan, reports CBS News chief foreign affairs correspondent Lara Logan.

For Colombia, it's a way to give something back to the U.S., and the American Green Berets who've spent the last decade training them.

General Freddy Padilla de Leon, Colombia's top military man, chose an interview with Logan to make the surprise announcement his men would join the fight in Afghanistan. "Very soon ... Maybe in August or September. This will be our first opportunity in our history," Padilla said.

Colombia's recent history is written in blood. An insurgency waged by leftist guerillas known as the FARC. And funded with drug money brought Colombia to its knees.

Colombia today is a different world. The economy is thriving and order has been restored. U.S. Ambassador William Brownfield told Logan that kidnappings and terrorist attacks are down dramatically.

So what changed? Over $6 billion in U.S. aid, a committed Colombian government and a small team of Green Berets from 7th Group Special Forces. "We don't have secrets - we are a very open book," General Padilla said of the relationship between Colombia and U.S. Special Forces.

The relationship took years to build with the Green Berets working to turn Colombia's best soldiers into an organized special operations force. They helped train a police Special Operations unit known as the "Jungle Commandos." The Commandos hit targets deep in the jungle, destroying drug labs and taking out the top drug lords. With the help of America's best warriors, the Colombian Special Forces have become some of the finest soldiers in the world. And they've used their skills to devastating effect against their enemy in the jungle, breaking the back of a 45-year-old insurgency.

Colombia's military has cut the area where the F.A.R.C. Can operate from almost half the country ten years ago down to just five percent today. They've had less success in the drug war. Cocaine production was down 28 percent last year, according to the U.N. But Colombia remains the world's top cocaine producer. Its rivers are a super highway for drug and arms trafficking - and the next target in the Special Operations war.

Colombia's army enjoys soaring popularity among the people. Still critics point out the military has been implicated in the killing and disappearance of civilians.

Colonel Greg Wilson knows from experience how advanced Colombia's top units now are. He was the senior U.S. Special Operations commander there when three U.S. hostages were rescued by the Colombian Special Operations Forces last summer. "I would rank it as one of the top special operations in modern day history," Wilson said.

Ambassador Brownfield says Colombia is the best investment of U.S. taxpayer money this century. "It has been the most successful nation building exercise that the U.S.A. has associated itself with perhaps over the last 25-30 years," Brownfield said.

The U.S. is looking to Colombia as it struggles to make headway in Afghanistan. As one top U.S. official said: "The more Afghanistan can look like Colombia, the better."

The Memorial weekend video

The BQ never stops.

Close Air Support In Afghanistan

Monday, July 27, 2009

Afghanistan says strikes Taliban truce in remote area

KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan has struck its first ceasefire with the Taliban in a remote province before a presidential election next month, the government said on Monday, but the truce lasted only hours before clashes broke out.

With the election to be held against a backdrop of increasing violence, the government's announcement of a deal came just before Britain urged Kabul to offer a way out for the "foot soldiers" of the insurgency and bring peace to Afghanistan.

The British are surrendering, already..

Taliban issues code of conduct

The Taliban in Afghanistan has issued a book laying down a code of conduct for its fighters.

Al Jazeera has obtained a copy of the book, which further indicates that Mullah Omar, the movement's leader, wants to centralise its operations.

The book, with 13 chapters and 67 articles, lays out what one of the most secretive organisations in the world today, can and cannot do.

It talks of limiting suicide attacks, avoiding civilian casualties and winning the battle for the hearts and minds of the local civilian population.

Al Jazeera's James Bays, reporting from the capital, Kabul, said every fighter is being issued the pocket book entitled "The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan Rules for Mujahideen".

The book sheds considerable light on the structure, organisation and aims of the group, he said.

Mullah Omar is quoted as saying that creating a new mujahideen group or battalion is forbidden.

"If unofficial groups or irregular battalions refuse to join the formal structure, they should be disbanded," Omar says.

Individual Taliban commanders have so far had a fair degree of autonomy, often deciding what operations to conduct and how to run the territory that they control.

Our correspondent said the regulations seem to be an attempt by Mullah Omar to bring all of the Taliban under his control.

"We have in the past had a lot of different groups in Afghanistan operating under the umbrella of the Taliban," Bays said.

"But it says in these regulations that if you find an irregular battalion that is not obeying orders then what you have to do is find that battalion and then disarm them."

Suicide bombing rules

Michael Griffin, an Afghanistan expert and author of the book Reaping the Whirlwind: Al Qaeda and the Holy War, told Al Jazeera: "The Taliban ... is flirting very closely with criminality on a very, very, large scale.

"If you think of the New York Times reporter who was kidnapped in November last year and released for $8m, this was a criminal act and has nothing to do with the Taliban as a political and military force.

"I think [Mullah Omar is] trying to bring all the disparate elements in the Taliban together under one umbrella to somehow isolate and and separate the elements which are simply criminal.

"But this is a difficult cause because there are a lot of people in the Taliban because it pays them."

While the Taliban have repeatedly used suicide bombings across Afghanistan, the book now says that they should be used only on high and important targets."

'Strong guarantees'

"A brave son of Islam should not be used for lower and useless targets. The utmost effort should be made to avoid civilian casualties," the book says.

There are now clear guidelines on how the Taliban will treat its prisoners as well.

"Whenever any official, soldier, contractor or worker of the slave government is captured, these prisoners cannot be attacked or harmed," it says.

"The decision on whether to seek a prisoner exchange or to release the prisoner with strong guarantees will be made by the provincial leader.

"Releasing prisoners in exchange for money is strictly prohibited."

The book further states that if a "military infidel" is captured, the decision on whether to kill, release or exchange the hostage is only to be made by the Imam, a reference to Mullah Omar, or deputy Imam.

'Winning hearts'

The book makes it clear that it is the duty of every fighter to win over the local population.

"The mujahideen have to behave well and show proper treatment to the nation, in order to bring the hearts of civilian Muslims closer to them.

"The mujahideen must avoid discrimination based on tribal roots, language or geographic background."

Our correspondent said the reference to winning over the hearts of the Afghan people is very similar to language used by Nato-led military forces in the country.

"Recently the Nato commander here issued a new tactical directive saying that civilians should not be bombed - almost the same words in these regulations to Taliban fighters," Bays said.

"Both sides [are] trying to win over the civilian population in their area."

The release of the rule book comes less than a month before Afghans head to the polls for a presidential election, which the Taliban has deemed an illegitimate system imposed by foreigners.

The timing may be just a coincidence, however, as rival presidential candidates detail their manifestos and the Taliban makes an effort to win over the Afghan public.

Al Jazeera

Oops, phyops how that get on there.

Rocket launchers sold to Venezuela went to FARC

BOGOTA (AP) - Swedish-made anti-tank rocket launchers sold to Venezuela years ago were obtained by Colombia's main rebel group, and Sweden said Monday it was demanding an explanation.

Colombia said its military found the weapons in a captured rebel arms cache and that Sweden had recently confirmed they originally were sold to Venezuela's military.

The confirmation strengthens Colombian allegations that Hugo Chavez's government has aided the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and exacerbated tensions between the neighboring nations over an imminent agreement to expand the U.S. military's use of Colombian air and naval bases.

The bazooka-like AT-4 single-use launchers, made by Saab Bofors Dynamics, lack the precision and range of surface-to-air weapons and there is no evidence FARC rebels have used any in combat.

President Alvaro Uribe complained over the weekend that if Colombia had kept quiet about the weapons "they'll fire them and obtain more and no one in the international community will halt their sale."

Venezuela's justice minister, Tareck El Aissami, on Monday dismissed the report of the missiles, denying that "our government or institutions have ever collaborated with any type of criminal or terrorist organizations."

The country's foreign minister, Nicolas Maduro, called the launcher claim part of a "brutal campaign" with a single objective: "to justify the presence of U.S. bases" in Colombia. He was referring to talks between Washington and Bogota - a hoped-for final round is slated for early August - on a bases accord.

Neither official offered information on whether the launchers might have once belonged to Venezuela's arsenal.

Three launchers were recovered in October in a FARC arms cache belonging to a rebel commander known as "Jhon 40" and Colombia only recently asked Sweden to confirm whether they had been sold to Venezuela, a senior Colombian official told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the matter.

In Stockholm, a senior Swedish Trade Ministry official, Jens Eriksson, said his government was working with Colombia "to find out how this happened."

"We have also contacted Venezuelan authorities," he told the AP. "We are still waiting for an answer."

The head of the Swedish government agency that supervises weapons exports, Jan-Erik Lovgren, told Swedish Radio that the weapons were sold to Venezuela in the 1980s.

Lovgren said the incident - a clear violation of end-user licenses - could affect future decisions on whether to allow weapons sales to Venezuela.

"Right now we don't have any ongoing business, but if we were to receive some, we would very likely say no," he added.

Colombian officials leaked electronic documents last year they said were found on the computer of slain FARC No. 2 commander Raul Reyes in which rebel commanders discussed obtaining bazookas and other arms from Venezuelan officials, including then-military intelligence chief Hugo Carvajal.

Colombia has long maintained that the FARC has been seeking to obtain shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles, whose use would significantly escalate a 45-year-old low-level conflict that has claimed about 3,500 lives annually.

"We know from intelligence that they are now seeking to buy some surface-to-air weapons to try to shoot down our planes," Uribe told reporters on Monday.

Military analyst Anna Gilmour, deputy editor of Jane's Intelligence Review, said the AT-4s don't provide a major boost to the FARC's capability.

"While SAMs are guided missiles that lock on to fast-moving aerial targets such as helicopters, the AT4 fires unguided rockets that can easily miss their target," she said.

Jane's Intelligence Weekly first reported on the launchers last week.

It said batches of AT-4s were sold to Venezuela in the 1980s and 1990s but that Saab ceased sales of military equipment to Venezuela in May 2006 in response to a U.S. arms embargo.

Colombian and U.S. officials accuse Venezuela of giving senior FARC leaders refuge and of allowing the rebels to smuggle tons of cocaine through the country.

Chavez's government denies the accusations.


The WoT, coming to a town near you.

Now I see it.

Police can use force to compel hurricane evacuation

A new state law will allow police to arrest people who don’t leave town under mandatory evacuation orders.

As it stands, officials cannot compel people to evacuate, only warn that those who stay behind won’t have any emergency services at their disposal. The new law gives county judges and mayors the power to authorize use of “reasonable force” to remove people from the area.

The law, passed this year, takes effect Sept. 1, in the heart of hurricane season in Texas. It also applies to other disasters, such as fires or floods.

Don’t expect police to go door to door arresting people or forcing them from their homes if a hurricane is headed toward Corpus Christi.

“If the hurricane is arriving here, we’re going to be doing the best we can to hunker things down, to make sure we have as many special-needs patients evacuated, to prevent crime and looting,” Corpus Christi Police Cmdr. Mark Schauer said. “We’re going to have a hard enough time preventing crime, let alone arresting people who don’t leave.”

County Judge Loyd Neal agreed that arrests for ignoring orders are unlikely.

“I don’t have a jail big enough to put 20,000 people in,” Neal said. “You have to hope people will use good sense. The majority of people usually do.”

Schauer sees the law more as a tool to compel people to leave, or to be used in special situations. For example, officials could issue a mandatory evacuation for the beaches, giving police the authority to arrest people who go storm-watching and put themselves in danger.

A man died after being swept off a Packery Channel jetty last summer as he watched swells caused by Hurricane Ike as it headed toward Galveston.

The law also makes people who must be rescued after ignoring mandatory evacuation orders civilly liable for the costs of the rescue.

A mandatory evacuation order often is a course of last resort, for a variety of economic and logistical reasons. Hospitals and nursing homes must move patients, and businesses must let workers leave town.

The evacuation provision is part of a larger bill overhauling the emergency response code after Hurricane Ike. The bill also directs the Governo

Caller Times

I guess we can argue who's to blame for the stupidities, the cops or the legislators.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Selling ammo

"We've been getting sporadic mortar and rocket attacks at the base here lately. No damages have been done so far, but if it continues it's only a matter of time. Apparently, recently a round landed next to the local Afghan National Police (ANP) station because the other day the ANA found a mortar round there and brought it up to me to show it off and ask me what to do with it. They were quite proud of themselves, and when my terp took it off their hands he proceeded to handle it a little nonchalantly for my tastes. I can't profess to being very fond of dealing with unexploded ordnance (UXO); I'd just as soon leave that job to the pros. But...sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do, so I grabbed it and carried it up to the UXO pit where it was destroyed the next day by Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD). The whole incident got me thinking about the ANA and ammo. Why is it that we get reports all the time of them selling ammo, but then when they find UXO they bring it right over to me? Why not sell that damn UXO too and keep it away from me...? haha. No, but really, better if they give it to me than sell it. Even if a rocket or mortar is no good anymore as a flying projectile, it can still make a helluva an IED. Best of all if they just marked it and left it in place for us to call EOD."
Embedded in Afghanistan

Aggressive, Coordinated Effort Led to F-22's Demise

The most remarkable thing happened in Washington this past Tuesday.

Congress scrapped the F-22 stealth fighter jet, killing off a 30-year-old Pentagon hardware program that employs 25,000 people in 46 states.

It was a dogfight almost to the end over $1.75 billion and the need to remake military readiness. Threats and promises, blunt talk and grand gestures -- all were deployed to support an appeal to common sense and for urgent change, according to principals involved. The White House coordinated the ultimately successful vote-wrangling, and its specific tactics may show up again in another epic battle now unfolding: getting Congress to draft and pass health-care reform.

For years, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has argued strenuously against the F-22s as Cold War relics, too inefficient and expensive to warrant building any more than the 187 already in the fleet. He cut the Air Force's F-22 funding request of $400 billion, for 20 more, to zero.

He bluntly warned Lockheed Martin that he would slice funding for the more modern F-35 jet if the contracting giant lobbied to build more F-22s. Lockheed Martin's chief executive, Robert J. Stevens, told employees he supported Gates's call "to put the interests of the United States first -- above the interests of agencies, services and contractors." That left the powerful lobbyists to sit on their hands.

But lawmakers had all those jobs on the line in their districts, and in a lousy economy. Republicans and Democrats alike defied Gates and the White House. In June, the Senate Armed Services Committee voted 13 to 11 to shift the $1.75 billion from other programs.

Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the committee's ranking Republican, and Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) fought back with an amendment to the defense budget bill to strip that funding out. Then the two senators, Gates and White House officials started looking for 51 votes.

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel called an old Chicago pal just back from a honeymoon in Italy. He asked for a favor: Could Bill Daley quickly pull together a full house at the Economic Club of Chicago if Gates were to come and deliver a forceful speech about military readiness and how the F-22 was a bad idea?

"I said we would love to do that," said Daley, a former commerce secretary. "I got hold of the [club's] president. We sent out a blast e-mail," and about 800 members, including several executives of Boeing, headquartered in Chicago, were on hand about two weeks later, on July 16, to listen politely.

"And we got great play," said Daley, with much media coverage of Gates's remarks and his forceful comments to reporters after the speech. It was exactly what the White House wanted.

Meanwhile, President Obama vowed to veto any bill funding the F-22s. "We do not need these planes," he wrote in letters on July 13 to McCain and Levin.

When a showdown vote loomed on July 15, Senate Democratic leaders who backed Obama's effort to scuttle the program did not think they had the votes to win. There was opposition in their own caucus: Sen. Patty Murray wanted the F-22 funding (and ultimately supported it in the final Senate vote, as did her fellow Democratic senator from Washington and the two Democratic senators from California). There were only about 20 votes that could be counted on to scrap the F-22 program, and even with those undecided and leaning, "we didn't crack 50," a Senate aide said.

So they put off the vote by shifting attention to a provision in the defense bill to expand protections under laws against hate crimes. That gave the Obama administration several days to restart its lobbying effort to win the vote. That afternoon, the administration, in a statement from the Office of Budget and Management, repeated the veto threat, emphasizing the point by underlining the sentence.

"People had to ask: Did we want this to be the first time he vetoed a bill from Congress?" said one senior Democratic Senate aide.

With several days now to organize opposition to the plane's funding, Gates started calling members of Congress. Vice President Biden called his old friend, Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), Inouye said. The vice president called at least two other senators and asked for their votes, and Obama called Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), said a senior administration official. National security adviser Gen. James Jones made calls, as did Deputy Defense Secretary William J. Lynn.

On the day before the vote, Gates called Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) to push him to support stripping the funding. Some of the plane's components are produced in Massachusetts, but Gates told Kerry of the importance of the vote and said the F-35 would continue to be produced, employing workers in the state. In a later call with Emanuel, Kerry said Gates had answered all his questions.

"The president pulled out all of the stops," said Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), who was pushing for additional funding for the plane.

Another advocate for funding the plane, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), said the lobbying effort included calling Republicans, because Obama "had a lot riding on this vote."

On Tuesday, aides in the White House's legislative affairs office, all former key aides to powerful congressmen, swarmed the Hill to collar votes. Emanuel sent some of his own staff members to help and to provide key intelligence directly to him back in the White House.

After the Senate voted 58 to 40, two votes fewer than would have been required to fund the program, Obama and the man he defeated in last year's presidential contest both hailed the outcome, using strikingly similar language.

"It really means there's a chance that we can change the way we do business here in Washington," said McCain, who long has had a deep disdain for the F-22 program.

The outcome of the fight is "a good example of us starting to change habits in Washington," Obama said.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), who had worked the $1.75 billion into the $680 billion defense spending bill, was left to grumble that he had never seen a White House lobby as hard for anything as this one did.


The Massachusetts Health Mess

In a rational world, the prognosis for ObamaCare would wait on the evidence in Massachusetts, given that the commonwealth's 2006 program closely resembles what Democrats are trying to do in Washington. If the results were widely known, it might be dead on arrival.

The Massachusetts law, which was championed by former GOP Governor Mitt Romney, imposed an individual mandate, requiring nearly all residents to buy health insurance or else pay a penalty. (The exceptions are those who qualify for the state's public program.) This was supposed to cover everybody and save money too. We've written before about how costs have exploded, but it also turns out that consumers have other ideas.

For 15 years Massachusetts has also imposed mandates known as guaranteed issue and community rating -- meaning that insurers must cover anyone who applies, regardless of health or pre-existing conditions, and also charge everyone the same premium (or close to it). Yet these mandates allow people to wait until they're sick, or just before they're about to incur major medical expenses, to buy insurance. This drives up costs for everyone else, which helps explain why small-group coverage in Massachusetts is so much more expensive than in most of the country. Mr. Romney argued -- as Democrats are arguing now -- that the individual mandate would make that problem disappear, since everyone is always supposed to be covered.

Well, the returns are rolling in, and a useful case study comes from the community-based health plan Harvard-Pilgrim. CEO Charlie Baker reports that his company has seen an "astonishing" uptick in people buying coverage for a few months at a time, running up high medical bills, and then dumping the policy after treatment is completed and paid for. Harvard-Pilgrim estimates that between April 2008 and March 2009, about 40% of its new enrollees stayed with it for fewer than five months and on average incurred about $2,400 per person in monthly medical expenses. That's about 600% higher than Harvard-Pilgrim would have otherwise expected.

The individual mandate penalty for not having coverage is only about $900, so people seem to be gaming the Massachusetts system. "This is a problem," Mr. Baker writes on his blog, in the understatement of the year. "It is raising the prices paid by individuals and small businesses who are doing the right thing by purchasing twelve months of health insurance, and it's turning the whole notion of shared responsibility on its ear."

Mr. Baker is right, though he underestimates the extent to which it is rational for people to do this, considering the government-mandated incentives. To one degree or another all insurance pools require the younger and healthier to subsidize the older and sicker, though part of the risk-sharing bargain is the hedge against unanticipated or future health problems -- i.e., true insurance. The combination of guaranteed issue and community rating actively encourages parts of the healthier population to forgo coverage and thus blow up voluntary risk pools. No doubt our politicians will conclude that the solution is to raise the penalty for going uninsured, though it would be easier and more rational to let insurance markets function without mandates.

For many Democrats, none of this is really a surprise, or even important. Their Rube Goldberg rules are meant to transfer the costs of health care away from individuals and onto someone else -- private companies like Harvard-Pilgrim in the short term, and over time onto taxpayers. Why lobbyist Karen Ignagni is still putting the health-insurance industry's head on the Washington chopping block is a mystery for the ages.


Iraq revives rules censoring books

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq's Ministry of Culture has revived regulations forbidding the import of some books, prompting critics to accuse it of restoring Saddam-era censorship.

The ministry has begun requiring publishers to submit lists of titles for approval, said Deputy Culture Minister Taher al-Humoud. He said the rules were based on law dating from the era of former dictator Saddam Hussein, ousted in 2003.

Humoud said the ban was on books glorifying violent jihad and martyrdom, which are typically imported from neighboring countries.

"All books are allowed except those that incite sectarian grudges," he said.

"Books that carry Takfiri fatwas against either sect (Sunni or Shi'ite Muslim), and the bloodshed they cause, are not permitted," he said, referring to Islamic legal decrees.

The move has angered groups like the Society to Defend the Freedom of the Press, which issued a statement this week complaining of a "return to a totalitarian regime."

"The society stresses that imposing such censorship is a termination of the freedom of expression and thought acquired after April 9, 2003," a statement from the society said, referring to the date Baghdad fell to invading U.S. forces.

Under Saddam, heavy censorship of books was the rule. State propaganda dominated the media, glorifying the government and demonizing enemies like the United States and Iran.

Saddam himself published several novels. Each of them was, unsurprisingly, a best-seller in Iraq and came out to enthusiastic reviews from Baathist literary critics.

Iraq's 2005 constitution enshrines freedom of press and publication unless they "violate public order or morality."

"This is not freedom of expression. This is freedom of destruction," Humoud said.

He said no books had been turned away since last month, but pointed to a case a year and a half ago which prompted the ministry to begin applying the rule anew.

In that instance, authorities at Baghdad international airport blocked the entry of a book entitled 'The Lover' -- referring not to romantic love but love of jihad.

As the raging violence of the last six years has ebbed, Iraqis have begun to enjoy a cultural revival, attending reopened theatres or enjoying singers who now dare to hold concerts.

But Iraqi media is dominated by party-backed publications and there is little investigative journalism. More than 100 journalists have been killed since 2003, and self-censorship is more common than government censorship.


wouldn't it be better to have a rating system, rated (J) for Jihad. If these people think they can ban thought they are only fooling themselves.

Movement of US, Nato troops worries Waziristan tribes

PESHAWAR/MIRAMSHAH: The movement of Afghanistan-based US and Nato troops over the past few days close to North and South Waziristan Agencies has frightened tribesmen, who are already under stress due to the increasing number of drone attacks and a possible military operation by the Pakistan Army.

Official and tribal sources informed The News from the border villages of North Waziristan about the unusual movement of what they termed ìhuge numberî of the US and Nato forces along the Pak-Afghan border.

They said the Nato troops were armed with helicopter gunships, tanks and armoured personnel carriers (APCs) and had started establishing camps and checkpoints along the border.

The residents of border villages, including Dwatoi, Kazha Madakhel and Gorweek, said warplanes and helicopter gunships were seen flying over the border areas between the two neighbouring countries throughout the day. In some of the areas, the tribesmen claimed the planes violated Pakistanís airspace and flew over their villages.

Villagers claimed that the US and Nato forces were brought to the border area in 80 vehicles amid tight security.

A military official based in Miramshah, the headquarters of North Waziristan, said they had also received reports about the troop movement but could not confirm it. Wishing not to be named, he said Pakistanís armed forces were fully alert on their posts along the border with Afghanistan. ìThey often come to the border villages inside Afghanistan and return to their bases after some time. There is no need to be worried,î the official said.

Tribal sources close to the Taliban in Afghanistan said there had been an unprecedented rise in attacks on the US and Nato forces in Afghanistan and their movement in the border areas could be an act of desperation.

They said the foreign forces had particularly suffered losses in Helmand, Paktia, Paktika and Khost provinces, which were close to Pakistanís restive South and North Waziristan tribal regions.

Besides suffering casualties, the sources said, the Taliban militants had made some US and British soldiers hostage in Afghanistan.

The movement of foreign forces close to Pakistanís border and establishment of the checkpoints, along the porous Durand Line, could be part of their strategy to stop the Taliban militants from shifting the kidnapped US and British soldiers to the adjoining tribal areas, said the sources.

On September 3, 2008, the US-led foreign forces carried out their first-ever ground operation in the Pakistani territory, killing 15 Pakistanis, including women and children, in South Waziristanís Musa Nika village near Angoor Adda, close to Afghanistanís Paktika province. The tribesmen fear recurrence of such an attack.

The News

Swedish forces in Afganistan in action last night

Swedish and Finish troops were attacked by Afgan resistance forces this night. The battle continued through the whole night and ended in the morning. Three rebels were killed according to the home Page of the Swedish Armed Forces.
The rebels attacked around nine pm (local time). It was a Swedish group of soldiers that was shot at close to Balkh, west from Masar-e-Sharif. One armoured vehicle under the name RG32 nicknamed "Galten" was shot at by what was believed to be both firearms and by anti tank grenades.

One Swedish unit with a tank joined by Finish troops were sent to the area as a reinforcement. The battle continued through whole night, sometimes intense, sometimes calm. In the morning the Swedish and Finish troops were reported to have secured the area.

No Swedish or Finish soldiers are reported to by ínjured. Two injured and three killed rebels were found after the battle. The injured were given first aid by the Swedish-Finish troops. One of the injured rebels was sent to the German base Marmal for continued care.

The place of the battle is now investigated by the Swedish military-police. The Afgan military and police is also there now.

The Swedish-Finish force that was involved in the fighting is now on its way to reassemble in the camp Northerns Lights in Mazar-e-Sharif.

Stockholm News

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Iraqi Kurds hope for change in regional elections

SULAIMANIYAH, Iraq (AP) - The Kurdish political establishment faced its first real test in an election Saturday for a president and 111-seat parliament in a semiautonomous region mired in a bitter dispute with Baghdad over oil and land that threatens Iraq's stability.

Mainstream groups were widely expected to maintain their hold on power, but voters expressed hope a strong opposition challenge would lead to reforms amid allegations of corruption and financial improprieties among the entrenched political parties that have held sway in this northern area for decades.

"I do believe that we will see a more activist parliament because of the active role of the opposition party," said Hewa Ahmed Hussein, a 34-year-old merchant in Irbil.

At the heart of the push for reform was a group called "Change," which is led by Nosherwan Mustafa, a former top official in one of the mainstream parties. Its success in campaigning forced an alliance between the two dominant parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party.

The opposition was expected to make some inroads in the parliament, but Iraq's electoral commission said it could take a week to count the results. Polling hours were extended to accommodate a large turnout for the first regional election since 2005.

The Kurds gained autonomy after rising up against Saddam in 1991, aided by a U.S.-British no-fly zone that helped keep the former dictator's armed forces at bay.

"Today is a day of revenge against the main parties," said 44-year-old Shobo Mahmoud shortly after casting his ballot in Sulaimaniyah, 160 miles (260 kilometers) northeast of Baghdad. "We are suffering from poor public services despite all the promises they made before and the support we gave to these politicians."

Nesreen Doski, a 31-year-old housekeeper, said she did not believe the leadership would change but she hoped for better policies.

"I do not think there will be a new era in Kurdistan," she said. "I guess the current leaders will keep their posts and they will improve the services being offered to the people."

The balloting comes as U.S. commanders warn that tensions between Kurds and Arabs could erupt into a new front in the Iraq conflict even as violence declines elsewhere in the country and U.S. forces prepare to withdraw by the end of 2011.

The Kurdish region has enjoyed relative calm since the 2003 U.S. invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein but ethnic rivalries have fueled attacks in nearby areas, particularly the disputed city of Kirkuk.

President Barack Obama has pressured Iraq's central government to be more flexible about sharing power and allowing provincial governments a greater role in decision-making. But the government is wary about ceding too much authority to the Kurds for fear that they will attempt to secede at some point and take the region's wealth of oil resources with them.

Political leaders had hoped to hold a referendum during the local elections on a proposed constitution, which lays claim to disputed areas outside the three Kurdish provinces, including Kirkuk. But national authorities scuttled that plan because Iraq's Arabs view it as an effort to expand Kurdish authority.

The Kurds also have clashed with the central government over a law outlining how Iraq's oil wealth should be divided among the country's religious and ethnic groups, and who has final say in developing the oil fields in the northern region.

President Massoud Barzani held up a purple finger after voting and promised to make it a priority to "restore the disputed areas to Kurdistan" if re-elected.

His nephew and regional Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani said negotiations were the answer.

"All sides should show flexibility if they want to build an independent Iraq," he said.

Security was tightened for Saturday's election and the 2.5 million eligible voters were only allowed to walk or take government authorized buses to polling centers. Polling centers were also set up in Baghdad for Kurdish lawmakers and others to cast their ballots.

Election officials said problems reported at the polls included complaints that some voters were prevented from casting ballots because their names did not appear on eligible voting rolls.

Maj. Gen. Robert Caslen, the top U.S. commander in northern Iraq, told The Associated Press he was hopeful that after the elections the Kurdish and Iraqi central governments would renew efforts to resolve the dispute.

"My challenge is that I am stuck in the middle of a tactical challenge of the Kurds and Arabs," he said. "We end up resolving temporary issues that come up."

Caslen said that if the two sides failed to resolve the issues, especially before a scheduled U.S. withdrawal at the end of 2011, the dispute could destabilize the country.

Underscoring dangers elsewhere in Iraq, two bombs exploded near the area headquarters of the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party in Fallujah, killing at least four people and wounding 25, police said. Police imposed a citywide vehicle ban after receiving report that two more car bombs had been planted in Fallujah, the official said.

In northern Baghdad, a bomb attached to a car exploded in Azamiyah, killing the driver and wounding a bystander, according to police. The police officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.


US notes ISI role in India, Afghanistan terrorism

The top US military commander has accused the Pakistani intelligence service, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), of fomenting “chaotic activity” in Afghanistan and India.

The chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen in unprecedented remarks asked Pakistan's main spy agency to change its "strategic thrust".

"What I mean is that they have clearly focused on support of ... historically, of militant organizations both east and west. I mean that's been a focus of theirs in Kashmir, historically, as well as with FATA. And I think ... that fundamentally has to change." Mullen said in an interview.

Mullen noted that Washington was having "discussions" with the Pakistani leadership on this sensitive issue.

The remarks came just hours ahead of Mullen's meeting with India's army Chief General Deepak Kapoor who is on a 5-day visit to America in a bid to cement military ties between Delhi and Washington.

The issue has raised alarms in Islamabad where palpable agitation exists over closer military ties between New Delhi and Washington. Meanwhile, Indian opposition is leery and distrustful of the US.

Press TV

Stop the presses

A Capture in Afghanistan, and Hometown Closes Ranks

HAILEY, Idaho — The sheriff encouraged everyone to ride bicycles to the vigil here on Wednesday night, “in the spirit of Bowe.”

It has barely been a year since Bowe R. Bergdahl joined the Army last summer and just days since the Taliban released a grainy video in which Private Bergdahl, who had been stationed in a volatile area of eastern Afghanistan, can be seen being held as their captive and saying how much he missed home.
It was in this valley of the Northern Rockies that Private Bergdahl, 23, grew up to become a young man with flair and diverse passions nurtured by his free-spirited hometown here amid the mountains.

Raised with a sister in a family of modest means, Mr. Bergdahl loved bicycles, disliked cars, loved motorcycles, danced ballet, knew his way around a rifle, served espressos, dropped out of high school, earned his G.E.D., read widely, biked the California coast, fished for salmon in Alaska and sailed the Atlantic. He pursued life and with good manners. People took to him.

Sheriff Walt Femling of Blaine County, a family friend and Mr. Bergdahl’s former landlord, recalled his tenant once politely declining a ride home in the rain, “because he didn’t want to get my car wet.”

Mr. Bergdahl’s family does not appear to have had a strong connection to the military. Nor, for that matter, does Hailey, whose population is about 6,000. There are craft breweries and bike shops on Main Street, not the empty storefronts and Army recruitment centers found in some other rural towns. The most visible military presence is a small armory for the Idaho National Guard that is not open on a daily basis.

While there is an active American Legion post in the area, nearly all of its 215 members are from wars preceding those in Iraq and Afghanistan. Several people said they were not aware of the area’s having lost a soldier in the recent conflicts. Some said the area’s liberal politics have made for a strong antiwar sentiment locally, at least relative to other parts of Idaho, particularly among the newcomers who have arrived over the past few decades seeking life in the outdoors.

“Bowe is very much a product of this community,” said Sue Martin, a family friend and the owner of a coffee shop where Mr. Bergdahl worked. “And he’s misunderstood because of that.”

“We’re all struggling to define who Bowe is,” Ms. Martin added.

A rush of scrutiny and questions has followed Private Bergdahl’s capture. Military officials said Private Bergdahl walked off his outpost in eastern Afghanistan in late June. In the video, the soldier says he was captured after he lagged behind during a patrol. Afghan police officials said Mr. Bergdahl’s base was in Paktika Province, a rugged and dangerous region that borders Pakistan.

“The circumstances under which Pfc. Bergdahl went missing are still under investigation,” Capt. Marcy Hopp, a spokeswoman for the United States Central Command, in Tampa, Fla., said Wednesday. “There’s so much speculation out there. Before we can release information, we have to complete the investigation and find out what really happened.”

Some people here worry that what Sheriff Femling called the soldier’s “adventurous spirit” could have played a role in his capture. The intense focus on what may have happened has led many people here to try to protect Private Bergdahl and his family, which has refused to be interviewed.

“They don’t know any more than we know,” Ms. Martin said.

Unlike in some other, less affluent small towns, where young people often join the military as a route to employment and a broader world, children who grow up in Hailey and its neighboring towns to the north, Ketchum and Sun Valley, are more likely to attend college, Sheriff Femling said. Some have the means and the motivation to travel or leave altogether after high school. Others might seek work in restaurants or retail. Service industries have grown substantially as the area has evolved into a skiing and summer sports resort where celebrities have second homes. At the same time, the recession has had an impact.

“My friends are all struggling to find jobs,” said Kyle Rose, 19, who graduated from Wood River High School here and has since moved to Big Sky, Mont., where he works as a cook.

Mr. Rose said he and a friend considered joining the Marines “to become snipers,” but ultimately did not because both have asthma. He said he did not know of any of his classmates who had entered the military. He knew Mr. Bergdahl in passing, Mr. Rose said, in part because Mr. Bergdahl once courted his former girlfriend — while she was still his girlfriend.

“It’s funny, he had long hair and stuff; he was pretty laid back,” Mr. Rose said. “But now he’s in the military.”

Elaine Charlat, whose husband, Maurice, served in the Army during the Korean War and was the commander of the American Legion post here for several years, said war and the military could be topics best left avoided.

“You want to keep your friends,” Mrs. Charlat said.

Yet she noted that Private Bergdahl’s situation seemed to have transcended division.

“We all want to support the family,” she said. “How stressful can you imagine that would be? You don’t know if something you say could be picked up and used against him. We’re playing it pretty close to the vest.”

Still, shops in the area have run out of yellow ribbon.