Sunday, February 28, 2010

U.N. Dispatch: Presidential Decree De-Fangs Afghanistan’s Election Watchdog


Eleven days ago, I heard a rumor that the office of President Hamid Karzai had re-written Afghanistan’s Election Law in ways that would deal a blow to the country’s beleaguered democrats. The changes had gone into force through a presidential decree, I was told. While the international press was still quiet, ripples of alarm were already spreading through Kabul-based civil society.

The story is out now, and the worst has been confirmed.

Among other changes, the decree gives the president the power to appoint all five members of the country’s election watchdog, the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC), the formerly U.N.-backed body that uncovered massive fraud during last year’s presidential election. Before, three of the commissioners were appointed by the U.N., one by the Supreme Court, and one by the Independent Election Commission (IEC), a body accused of favoring the incumbent president last August.

Former U.N. senior political adviser Gerard Russell described the decree in a Guardian comment "
War is Boring
I guess we can congratulate them dammed Canucks for their gold....

Suicides still big problem

SCHOFIELD BARRACKS — The Army's top uniformed officer said even though the rest time between deployments is increasing for soldiers, an increasing suicide rate remains a mystery and concern.

The Army reported 24 potential suicides for January (some are still being investigated), outnumbering the 16 U.S. combat deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan for the month.

There were at least 128 Army suicides last year.

"The fact of the matter is, we just don't know" why suicides have increased, Army Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey Jr. said Friday. "It's been very frustrating to me with the effort that we made over the last year, and we did not stem the tide."

The Army and the National Institute of Mental Health in late 2008 began a five-year, $50 million study to examine the problem. The study includes the National Guard and Army Reserve.

Casey is in Hawai'i for the funeral of Gen. Frederick Weyand, a key figure in the Vietnam War and former Army chief of staff who died Feb. 10 at age 93 at the Kāhala Nui retirement home.

An important component in mental health is longer "dwell," or at-home time between deployments, and efforts are being made to increase that time, officials said.

"For the last five years, we've been deploying at a rate of about one year out, one year back," Casey said.

More and more, units are getting 17 to 18 months at home, and with the addition of 30,000 soldiers to the Army's ranks and a drawdown in Iraq, Casey said he expects two years between deployments by this time next year.

The four-star general and former commander of multinational forc- es in Iraq said a study showed it takes two to three years to fully recover from a one-year combat deployment, "and when you don't have enough time to completely recover, what you see is the effects start to build up, so they become cumulative."

Enrollments for drug and alcohol treatment have increased, and the divorce rate has increased slightly overall, with a greater jump for female soldiers, Casey said.

About a third of soldier suicides occur on deployment, a third occur after a deployment, and a third involve soldiers who haven't deployed, he said.

The Army is "working very hard" on a program called Comprehensive Soldier Fitness, which started in October and focuses on mental, emotional and social well-being to teach soldiers to be more resilient, Casey said.

"I just can't help but think the additional stresses brought on by these deployments exacerbate existing conditions," Casey said. "So what we're trying to do is give every soldier and family member and civilian the skills that they need to deal with life's challenges."

Casey reiterated his concern that the possible repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy could affect readiness and military effectiveness.

The 1993 policy bars openly gay individuals from serving in the U.S. military, but prevents the military from asking a service member's sexual orientation.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who expressed support of a repeal, recently launched a review of the policy. The study is expected to take about a year.

"I've gone out over the past several months and talked to different segments of the Army, different groups, and gotten their input," Casey said. "And there's apprehension and there's uncertainty, and that's why I think it's so important that we study this."

Honolulu Advertiser

US hockey team draws inspiration from Iraq veteran

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Sure, the young, surprising U.S. hockey team had a supreme challenge facing powerful Canada inside its roaring home arena in the gold-medal match of the Winter Games.

They better not have whined to Chad Fleming.

He didn't fly from Virginia to Seattle, then drive three hours to Vancouver, to see his Americans lose.

He didn't "give" his leg - he refuses to say "lose" - in an ambush on patrol as an Army special forces officer in Iraq in 2005, then go on three more deployments wearing a prosthetic, to see the team he adopted be overwhelmed by long odds.

He didn't earn three Purple Hearts in combat, run the New York City marathon and bike 460 miles through California in November to get behind futile efforts.

American fans know how great Ryan Miller, Zach Parise and Patrick Kane have been in these Olympics. They don't know how great Chad Fleming has been for the U.S. team.

"I'm not exactly a mascot," Fleming says. "More a motivator."

Before the most anticipated hockey game in recent history, Fleming spoke to a U.S. team dinner Saturday night, inspiring the Americans just as he did to begin the tournament.

Then on Sunday, the barrel-chested Fleming was in Section 109, row 24, standing tall and proud amid a sea of red-clad Canadians waving maple-leaf flags and ringing cowbells.

"This is awesome!" he yelled over the roars before the opening faceoff.

The 37-year-old from Tuscaloosa, Ala., relayed to The Associated Press what he told the underdog U.S. team upon his arrival Saturday following an 11-hour trip.

"My story is one of tenacity and perseverance," Fleming, who has a slight Southern drawl, says he told the players. "I'm missing a leg, but that didn't stop me from going overseas three more times. So hey, when you think you've got it bad ... know that there are always people who have it worse.

"You are representing something way larger than the NHL or professional hockey. You are representing the greatest country in the world. I fought to defend what you are playing for."

He paused and told a reporter, "That tends to resonate with them."

Guess so.

The team wearing "Land of the free and home of the brave" on the sleeves of its jerseys hadn't lost entering Sunday since Fleming addressed the team before its Olympic opener against Switzerland on Feb. 16.

"We're not just playing for our dressing room," said Brian Burke, the general manager of the U.S. team. "We're playing for our wounded warriors and we're playing for the Americans. We've heard from lots of them."

Burke's BlackBerry is full of e-mails from wounded soldiers who have "adopted" each U.S. player. Staff Sgt. Javier Villanueva of San Antonio is paired with Parise. Cpl. William Hunker of Fayetteville, N.C., adopted Kane. Fleming, an 11-year Army veteran and the only officer in the group, is paired with U.S. captain Jamie Langenbrunner.

Fleming is the only wounded veteran here from the nonprofit Operation Homefront organization, which helps U.S. soldiers, the families they leave behind on deployments and veterans who come home wounded.

The organization's CEO, Rob Wolford, invited Fleming to Chicago last year for the U.S. team's orientation camp. Fleming instantly bonded with "Burkie," "J.J." and the rest of the U.S. roster.

The reception was enough to make Fleming, who grew up minutes from the football powerhouse at the University of Alabama, a hockey fan.

The team invited him to Vancouver for another motivational pep talk two weeks ago. Fleming brought care packages for each player from the wounded soldiers.

These weren't boxes of cookies.

Inside Miller's package from his sponsor, Staff Sgt. John Stanz of Hamburg, N.Y., was a bullet shot in one of Stanz's firefights in Iraq. The goalie has kept it in Vancouver as a good-luck charm.

Another player got a headdress from a soldier who had been given it by an Iraqi tribal leader grateful the Americans had successfully defended his people from insurgents.

"They told me, 'Hey, we get to the gold-medal game, you're coming back,'" said Fleming, who will return to Iraq soon as a government contractor advising Army special operations.

The latest call from the U.S. team came after its semifinal rout of Finland on Friday. With help from Operation Homefront, Fleming arrived Saturday in time to join the private team dinner at the downtown Italian restaurant where the undefeated and superstitious Americans have dined each night since before they stunned Canada last weekend.

And yes, the players knew he was in the arena Sunday for the most important game of their lives. Win or lose, he was headed down to the locker room to see his boys again after the game.

He was supposed to fly home on a red-eye late Sunday night, but ...

"Oh, yeah," Fleming said up in Section 109. "After we win the gold medal, I'm staying tonight for the party."

It's hard to think of a movie that'd play better in the Obama White House screening room than Matt Damon's new Iraq War thriller, "Green Zone," in which the Oscar-winner adroitly portrays a soldier fighting to expose the Bush administration's weapons of mass destruction deception. Yet for all the ammo his movie may give Democrats, Damon admits he's "disappointed" in the man who replaced George W. Bush.

"Politics is compromise," says the actor, who campaigned hard for Barack Obama. But Damon feels his candidate has compromised too much. "I'm disappointed in the health care plan and in the troop buildup in Afghanistan. Everyone feels a little let down because, on some level, people expected all their problems to go away. But real change comes from everyday people. You can't wait for a leader."

Damon, who still thinks Obama deserves time, vouches that "the people who worked on 'Green Zone' come from all across the political spectrum."

His character, Roy Miller, is based on real-life Army chief warrant officer, Richard (Monty) Gonzales, whose Mobile Exploitation Team was charged with finding the WMDs during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

"Monty was a Republican - he'd voted for Bush," Damon told us at Nobu 57 after the movie's Cinema Society premiere. "He went to Iraq with the absolute conviction he was going to find the WMDs."

In the movie, Amy Ryan plays a reporter obviously modeled after Bush water-carrier Judy Miller. Greg Kinnear plays the oily Bush operative who leads her to believe an Iraqi general has confirmed the existence of WMDs. A chase commences to find the general.

Paul Greengrass, who directed Damon in the "The Bourne Supremacy" and "The Bourne Ultimatum," packs the tale with enough explosives and car chases to rev up any fan of Damon's superspy, Jason Bourne.

And will there be another "Bourne"?

"I think the way is to extend the franchise is to create a 'Bourne identity' that different actors can take on," said Damon."I could pass the identity to Russell Crowe or Denzel Washington or Ryan Gosling."

But is Damon willing be "Bourne" again?

"If Paul Greengrass does it and we have something to say, definitely," said Damon. (Greengrass sounded less willing: "I'm out of it. I'm going to try other things.")

Next up for Damon is a remake of "True Grit." (His current mustache works "either for a Western or a porno movie," he jokes.) He may also play Robert F. Kennedy. ("He was a complex man. He wasn't just a pitbull or a saint.")

And then there's "The Trade," in which he and Ben Affleck would play real-life Yankees Fritz Peterson and Mike Kekich, who in 1973 swapped wives. Coming after "The Other Guys," in which fellow Red Sox cultist Mark Wahlberg shoots Derek Jeter in the leg, can "The Trade" be anything but a blatant Boston plot to ridicule the Bombers? "I know it looks that way," laughed Damon. "But, really, there's no mischief. It's just a great story."

Yeah, right.


Combat Generation: Drone operators climb on winds of change in the Air Force

The question, scrawled on a Pentagon whiteboard last fall, captured the strange and difficult moment facing the Air Force.

"Why does the country need an independent Air Force?" the senior civilian assistant to Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, the service's chief of staff, had written. For the first time in the 62-year history of the Air Force, the answer isn't entirely clear.

The Air Force's identity crisis is one of many ways that a decade of intense and unrelenting combat is reshaping the U.S. military and redefining the American way of war. The battle against insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq has created an insatiable demand for the once-lowly drone, elevating the importance of the officers who fly them.

These new earthbound aviators are redefining what it means to be a modern air warrior and forcing an emotional debate within the Air Force over the very meaning of valor in combat.

Since its founding, the Air Force has existed primarily to support its daring and chivalrous fighter and bomber pilots. Even as they are being displaced by new technology, these traditional pilots are fighting to retain control over the Air Force and its culture and traditions.

The clash between the old and new Air Force was especially apparent in the aftermath of the 2006 strike that killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of the al-Qaeda affiliate in Iraq.

Predator crews spent more than 630 hours searching for Zarqawi and his associates before they tracked him to a small farm northeast of Baghdad.

Minutes later, an F-16 fighter jet, streaking through the sky, released a 500-pound bomb that locked onto a targeting laser and killed Zarqawi.

The F-16 pilot, who faced no real threat from the lightly armed insurgents on the ground, was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the same honor bestowed on Charles Lindbergh for the first solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean.

The Predator pilots, who flew their planes from an Air Force base outside Las Vegas, received a thank-you note from a three-star general based in the Middle East. Senior Air Force officials concluded that even though the Predator crews were flying combat missions, they weren't actually in combat.

Four years later, the Air Force still hasn't come up with a way to recognize the Predator's contributions in Afghanistan and Iraq. "There is no valor in flying a remotely piloted aircraft. I get it," said Col. Luther "Trey" Turner, a former fighter pilot who has flown Predators since 2003. "But there needs to be an award to recognize crews for combat missions."

The revolution

It is the job of Schwartz, the Air Force's top general and a onetime cargo pilot, to mediate between the old and new pilot tribes. In August 2008, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates tapped him to lead the service, the first chief of staff in Air Force history without a fighter or bomber pedigree, reflecting Gates's frustration with the service's old guard.

A quiet and introspective leader, Schwartz has turned his attention to dismantling the Air Force's rigid class system. At the top of the traditional hierarchy are fighter pilots. Beneath them are bomber, tanker and cargo pilots. At the bottom are the officers who keep aircraft flying and satellites orbiting in space.

Schwartz has also pushed to broaden the Air Force's definition of its core missions beyond strategic bombing and control of the skies. New on his list: providing surveillance imagery to ground troops waging counterinsurgencies. Today, the Air Force is flying 40 round-the-clock patrols each day with its Predator and Reaper unmanned planes, an eightfold increase over 2004.

"This is our year to look up and out . . . to ask big questions," Schwartz said in an interview. "Who are we? What are we doing for the nation's defense? . . . Where is this grand institution headed?"

One answer to those questions is taking shape at Creech Air Force Base, an hour's drive from Las Vegas, where the Air Force launched a trial program to train a first-ever group of officers with no aviation background or training to fly the Predator. Before the trial program, virtually all of the Air Force's Predator and Reaper pilots began their careers flying fighter jets, bombers or cargo aircraft and were temporarily assigned to three-year tours as drone pilots.

By 2007, the Air Force started to realize that it didn't have enough traditional pilots to meet the growing demand from field commanders for Predators and Reapers. When Gates pressed for an expedited program to train officers without an aviation background to fly drones, the Air Force initially resisted. Only a fully trained pilot could be trusted to maneuver an unmanned aircraft and drop bombs, some officials maintained.

At the rate the Air Force was moving, it would have needed a decade to meet battlefield demand. Schwartz changed the policy.

"We had a math problem that quickly led to a philosophical discussion about whether we could create a new type of pilot," said Maj. Gen. Marke F. Gibson, the director of Air Force operations and training. With Schwartz's backing, Gibson crafted a nine-month training program for officers from non-flying backgrounds, including deskbound airmen, military police officers and "missiliers."

The crash program has been controversial, particularly among traditional pilots, who typically undergo two years of training. "We are creating the equivalent of a puppy mill," complained one fighter pilot.

One of eight initial trainees was Capt. Steve Petrizzo, who joined the Air Force in 2003 hoping to fly F-16s. He was too nearsighted to fly planes, so the Air Force assigned him to a nuclear-missile base where he manned a concrete capsule 50 feet below ground, waiting for the order to launch.

Petrizzo leapt at the chance to fly the Predator. "I wanted to be in the fight," he said.

His first six months of training beginning in early 2009 focused on the basics of flying. The last few months of instruction were spent in a ground control station maneuvering a simulated Predator through video-game reproductions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

One day last summer, inside the cramped and aggressively air-conditioned ground control station, the tension between the old and new Air Force was obvious. Maj. Andy Bright, an F-15 pilot turned Predator instructor, was coaching Petrizzo through the simulations.

In one scenario, Petrizzo followed a squad of soldiers through a village. Suddenly, the troops were hit with a blast of sniper fire and sprinted for cover. Although Petrizzo quickly spotted the insurgent, it took him almost five minutes to maneuver his plane into a spot where he could get off a shot that wouldn't also spray the soldiers or nearby civilians with shrapnel.

Those few minutes amounted to an eternity to soldiers under fire. Bright counseled Petrizzo to think more about how he positioned his plane. "Flying a Predator is like a chess game," he said. "Because you have a God's-eye perspective, you need to think a few moves ahead."

Four hours and several ambushes later, Petrizzo and Bright sat across from each other in a conference room for a mission debriefing. Bright was professional. But it was clear that he had doubts that any officer could be ready to fly combat missions after just nine months of training. "I have to spend a lot of time with them on the very basics," Bright said of Petrizzo and his fellow officers in the program. "They are still learning how to maneuver a plane."

The graduation ceremony for Petrizzo and his classmates raised a new set of questions for the Air Force: Should the new graduates wear the same wings as traditional pilots? Did they qualify for extra flight pay? Should they even be called pilots?

Schwartz decided the graduates were pilots. Even though they didn't leave the ground, they would receive flight pay. On the day of the ceremony, the general flew in from the Pentagon to pin a specially designed set of wings on each of the trainee's uniforms. The traditional shield at the center of their wings was festooned with lightning bolts to signify the satellite signal that connects the ground-based pilots to their planes.

"You are part of the major new Air Force development of the decade," Schwartz told the graduates.

A few days later, Petrizzo and his classmates were flying missions over Afghanistan.

Top-down changes

Lasting cultural change won't take place in the Air Force until officers who serve in these new fields rise to the top ranks, which are still dominated by fighter pilots.

Because of the huge demand for drones, the pilots who fly Predators and Reapers aren't being allowed to leave bases such as Creech for other assignments that would give them the experience they need to ascend to higher ranks. Today, there are about a dozen officers with experience flying Predators and Reapers on the Air Force staff in the Pentagon, compared with more than 100 fighter pilots.

"My guys understand this mission is important," one squadron commander told Schwartz on a visit to Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico in late January. "But for them this tour is never-ending."

Some senior Predator and Reaper commanders are leaving the military because they probably won't make general. In a few weeks, Col. Eric Mathewson, who has more experience with unmanned aircraft than just about any other officer in the Air Force, will retire after 26 years.

The former F-15 pilot started working with the Predators in 2000 after he hurt his back and was unable to fly. As a squadron commander during a bloody 15-hour battle in eastern Afghanistan in 2002, Mathewson saw his Predators outperform the Air Force's most advanced fighter jets.

Dug-in Taliban insurgents had surrounded a dozen U.S. troops who were fighting for their lives. F-15s and F-16s screamed overhead. But the fast-moving planes couldn't get off a clean shot at the enemy's main bunker without also wounding the American troops.

Army commanders refused to bring in vulnerable helicopters to evacuate the dead and wounded until an enemy machine-gun nest was destroyed.

Crouched behind a cluster of boulders, the Army Ranger platoon leader radioed that one of his soldiers was bleeding to death in the snow. He needed help fast.

A pilot from Mathewson's squadron at Creech Air Force base guided his drone over the Ranger position. The Predator had never been used in a hot battle to support ground troops, and the Air Force controller embedded with the Rangers was hesitant to let it fire.

To prove its accuracy, the Predator crew launched one of its two Hellfire missiles at an empty hilltop. The hit was accurate, but it left the drone with only one missile. The pilot steadied his plane and squeezed the "pickle" button on his stick, setting loose his last missile and obliterating the Taliban machine-gun nest. "We would have all died without the Predator," the controller recalled months later to Air Force officials.

A few months after the battle, Mathewson unsuccessfully nominated several of his airmen for the Distinguished Flying Cross -- an early effort to win medal recognition for Predator crews.

Blocked from rewarding his troops with traditional battlefield honors, Mathewson searched for other ways to build camaraderie among his pilots and camera operators. Shortly after he arrived at Creech for his second Predator tour in 2006, Mathewson wrote a new mission statement for his squadrons.

"Most mission statements are long, complicated and italicized," he said. "Mine was three words: "Kill [Expletive] Heads." His troops shortened it further to "KFH" and painted it on the cluster of trailers that served as their makeshift headquarters. They emblazoned KFH on their unit letterhead. Everyone in the unit carried a poker chip bearing the three letters.

"It reminded us that our job was all about the combat and doing things right," Mathewson said.

After Creech, the Air Force sent Mathewson to the Pentagon, where he spent most of 2009 drafting the service's road map for developing remotely piloted aircraft through 2047.

The plan that Mathewson produced for the Air Force envisions unmanned planes not only providing surveillance and striking targets, but also hauling cargo around the world. Instead of flying just one plane, a single pilot would probably control as many as four or five planes simultaneously. "If I am doing a surveillance mission where the plane is literally just staring at the ground or at a road for eight or ten hours, I don't need a pilot actively controlling the plane," he said. "So maybe I have a squadron of 40 aircraft but I only have four or five people monitoring them." The Air Force and Mathewson have already demonstrated in training that one pilot can fly as many as four Predators.

Col. David Sullivan, who commanded a Predator squadron at Creech, describes Mathewson as one of the Air Force's "visionaries."

The next generation of unmanned planes is likely to demand even greater changes from the Air Force, Mathewson said. The craft will require new kinds of organizations, new types of bases and new kinds of officers who will never peer through a fighter-jet canopy in search of the enemy. Old notions of valor are likely to disappear.

A decade of drone combat has already led Mathewson to adjust his definition of the word, which is a part of almost every combat award citation. "Valor to me is not risking your life," he said. "Valor is doing what is right. Valor is about your motivations and the ends that you seek. It is doing what is right for the right reasons. That to me is valor."


Female Engagement Teams prep for interacting with Afghan women

There’s an old adage in the Marine Corps – “adapt and overcome.” It can apply to any number of situations, whether it’s not having a particular piece gear or being heavily outnumbered in a fire fight, Marines excel with what they have. Improvising is one of the organization’s hallmarks, and when dealing with something as delicate as respectfully overcoming cultural and social taboos, it is especially important for success in a combat zone?

Effectively identifying the wants and needs of the people of Afghanistan requires a unique approach, and female Marines rise to the occasion.

Though males are prohibited from speaking with Afghan women, the Corps has been able to breach this cultural barrier by fielding teams of graduates from Female Engagement Team courses like the one conducted by a group of female Marines and sailors of Combat Logistics Battalion–6, Combat Logistics Regiment-2, Marine

Expeditionary Brigade-Afghanistan, here Feb. 1-6.
Brought to fruition just a few short months ago, the training is tailored to overcome gender issues that have hindered operations in the Middle East on more than one occasion. Now armed with well-trained teams of mission-oriented females, ground assault units will have yet another approach for gathering information and networking.

Master Sgt. Julia Watson, officer-in-charge of the overall program for Marine Expeditionary Brigade-Afghanistan, sees the program as an instrumental tool to show the people of Afghanistan that Marines are here to help, not hinder, their way of life.

“It’s not just going in and talking, it’s establishing relationships,” said Watson, who was assigned to the program more than a month ago.
“Yes, the teams provide security, and that’s important, but they do so much more,” she said. “Their ability as women to go into these villages and talk to their women is crucial for gathering information vital to understanding the dynamics of their culture.”

Watson noted that by establishing these long-term relationships through regular FET contact, MEB forces will earn the trust and support needed by these people to efficiently help them. Once these needs are identified from information collected, it is passed to civil affairs units that will in turn be able to target those specific needs effectively.

Throughout the six-day course, the more than 40 Marines and sailors were taught a myriad of topics ranging from convoy operations and combat skills to the history of the Taliban and cultural awareness, with lessons and practical application on search procedures, combat life saving and weapons handing.

In scenarios like the Combat Expectations Course, instructors do everything within reason to add a level of stress, giving participants just a taste of what they may see during a real mission. In addition to the constant barking of commands, the instructors had each student begin the course with ten pushups, while loaded down with their weapons and full issue of personal protective equipment.

“I want them to get that adrenaline up,” said Sgt. Stacy Blackburn-Hoelscher, FET and training non-commissioned officer-in-charge for MEB-Afghanistan. “We want them to be able to perform regardless of what’s going on around them. Their reactions could save lives.”

In addition to instruction provided by Blackburn-Hoelscher and a handful of other Marines with first-hand knowledge of FET missions, lessons were supplemented with input from Afghan women, native to the region. The curriculum proved to be very popular and pertinent among participants, with much of the information serving as a refresher for those who have deployed in the past.

“It’s a whole lot of new stuff and more specifics on what we already know,” said Lance Cpl. Kiah Mallory, a radio operator with CLB-6. “The instructors are great motivation and I will be proud to be a FET member once I get through the course.”
Class 01-10 culminated with a graduation ceremony attended by the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General James T. Conway, and Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps, Sgt. Maj. Carlton W. Kent.

“No one questions the value of what you do,” said Conway as he addressed the formation of graduates prior to presenting each of them with their certificate of completion.

War on Terror News

Blackwater in Kabul, or Eric Cartman Gets an AK-47

The Senate Armed Services Committee is holding a hearing today on Paravant, a previously little-known subsidiary of Xe Services (aka Blackwater). It caps a six-month investigation by the committee, and it promises to be a doozy.
Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the Democratic chair of the committee, met with reporters yesterday to give a sneak preview. According to a statement released last night by Levin, the investigation revealed “failures in U.S. government oversight” that allowed employees of Blackwater — sorry, Paravant (Levin said he saw “no meaningful distinction between the two”) — to go buck wild in Afghanistan.

Paravant employees were supposed to be helping train Afghan security forces. But according to the committee investigation, Paravant employees were also indulging in extracurricular activities like joyriding with automatic weapons, and treating an Afghan National Police arsenal like their own personal weapons stash.

The company first garnered headlines after two former Paravant contractors were arrested on murder charges in the shootings of two Afghans in a May 2009 traffic accident in Kabul. They were charged under the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act.

According to the Senate investigation, Paravant employees were involved in a second, previously undisclosed shooting that happened in December 2008. Paravant program manager Johnnie Walker told committee staff the incident happened after an employee decided to get on the back of a moving car with a loaded AK-47 and “ride it like a stagecoach.” The employee accidentally discharged the rifle when the vehicle hit a bump. The round struck another Paravant team member, who was seriously injured.

“The reckless disregard for weapons safety is particularly striking given that he and his team were hired for the specific purpose of teaching the Afghan National Army how to safely use their weapons,” Levin’s statement dryly notes.

Another issue the committee probed was Bunker 22, an armory near the notorious Pol-e-Charki prison that held weapons meant for the Afghan National Police. According to the committee investigation, more than 200 AK-47s were taken out of Bunker 22 in September 2008 and signed for by a Paravant/Blackwater employee named “Eric Cartman.” Some of the weapons apparently withdrawn by our favorite South Park character were unaccounted for for months afterward, according to the committee.

Blackwater’s reputation is already in tatters, thanks to a string of deadly incidents. And the conduct of some private security contractors in Afghanistan hasn’t done much for the industry either. But getting a handle on this is crucial. As Levin noted, the campaign in Afghanistan is primarily a struggle to win the support of the population. “If we are going to win that struggle,” he said, “We needed to know that our contractor personnel are adequately screened, supervised and held accountable.”


In Operation Moshtarak, the current NATO offensive in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province, commanders have a powerful tool at their disposal: cash, and lot

In Operation Moshtarak, the current NATO offensive in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province, commanders have a powerful tool at their disposal: cash, and lots of it. According to Lindy Cameron, head of the Helmand Provincial Reconstruction Team, the fighting is being quickly followed by “cash-for-work” programs meant to put local communities back to work, along with other reconstruction projects.

Cash for work, however, has some risks of its own. The biggest potential problem is fraud, often in the form of the “phantom project” (a task that is never actually undertaken or completed) or the “phantom staff” (payrolls that are padded with no-shows). But tracking dollars in cash-for-work schemes is essential. As the U.S. Agency for International Development learned in Iraq, money spent unwisely on public works schemes can end up in the hands of insurgents.

So how do you track cash-for-work in a place like Helmand, where fighting still rages? John Stephens, who manages programs in Afghanistan for the U.S. charity Mercy Corps, came up with one solution: Use cameras with GPS to verify aid projects in insecure places where expatriate staff can’t oversee projects in person.

The idea is simple: If an area is too dicey to send in expats, Mercy Corps sends in Afghan staff with GPS cameras — either a Nikon point-and-shoot, or a Garmin handheld GPS with built-in camera — to verify that the projects are actually being undertaken in the right places, so they can pay wages. The data is then uploaded to a Google Earth–style program, so Mercy Corps — which implements USAID projects — can track projects and their participants.

In Afghanistan, this kind of accountability is key. As the Washington Post reports today, U.S. officials are concerned about a “blizzard of cash” that is being hand-carried out of the country. Some of that money may be legit, but there’s also a serious concern that the U.S. government may be indirectly fueling corruption through a massive infusion of aid dollars to do everything from building roads to picking up trash and cleaning canals.

“Everyone who’s there is holding vigil,” Stephens told Danger Room. “The moment you turn away for a second, that’s when corruption can blossom. Especially with cash-for-work, because there’s so much money involved.”

Using GPS cameras, Stephens said, “extends the reach of our program managers. So on the one hand, it was about volume — you put cameras in people’s hands, and they go out and photograph it and upload it to Google Earth and verify it — and in other places … you can expand the service to communities where it’s too insecure to work, or too remote.”

It’s a model that Mercy Corps is applying to other places where it operates. Stephens said using GPS cameras was also an option for aid projects in places like Congo, Somalia and the tribal regions of Pakistan.

Of course, technology isn’t the only solution. If you want to read a fascinating account of another way of managing these programs, read Tim Lynch’s accounts of running cash-for-work in contested urban areas in Afghanistan — places like Kandahar, Gardez, Lashkar Gah and Jalalabad. “There are no security teams, no armored vehicles, no guarded compounds, no nothing — just a small life-support payment for the two internationals to rent guesthouse rooms and pay for food,” he wrote last year. “The project managers provide their own security.”

Not everyone can do what Lynch and his colleagues do: They have years of experience, language skills and local ties that allow them to work more independently. But using cameras and GPS is another option that merits a closer look, particularly as the administration pushes a civilian-development surge to match the military effort in Afghanistan.

“This is in furtherance of our mission and making sure that we get into those communities that need it the most,” Stephens said. “It’s not about having an eye in the sky, having a ‘humanitarian Predator’ out there that is keeping an eye on communities.”


How Al Qaeda Lost the Popularity Contest

"“In an important way, Al Qaeda has been defeated,” Jon Alterman writes for the Center for Strategic and International Studies:
At one time, many Muslims admired the organization for its courageous opposition to Western domination, and many Westerners feared that Al Qaeda might draw Muslim communities into a battle with the West. Immediately after the events of September 11, 2001, it was not always clear how the battle for Muslim hearts and minds would end up. With the passage of time, we now know, and Al Qaeda has lost.
Which jibes with the consensus among analysts that the main Al-Qaeda organization is also out of money, for it relied heavily on fraudulent “charitable” donations for its revenue. Without a popular base, that money dried up. To be clear, small-scale terror is not expensive: even major attacks such as those on September 11, 2001 can cost less than a million dollars. Still, a lack of financing limits Al Qaeda’s options and increases its risks."
War is Boring

Impressions from Basra

"When it comes to electoral politics, Basra is indicative of what’s happening on the provincial level: voters are choosing local candidates that they are comfortable with. In Baghdad, the big names dominate politics, and thus the local voter’s attention would be drawn to names such as Maliki, Ja’afari, Allawi,…etc. But in Basra and elsewhere, these big names don’t feature on the campaign materials seen on the streets, so the voter is compelled to look into the backgrounds of the individual candidates rather than any broader political leanings.

For example, candidate no. 1 on the Iraqi National Alliance slate is Uday Awwad Kadhim, a 33-year-old Sadrist who has almost no standing on a national level. But he’s known in Basra City as a competent and hardworking electrical engineer throughout the time he served as an overseer of the province’s electrical grid. The subtext, of course, is that he would give more electricity to ‘those from ‘Amara’, a reference to the migrants from ‘Amara (Maysan) province who populate the slums of Khamsa Meel, Gzeizeh, Hayyaniyah and other such neighborhoods that form the bulwark of Sadrist support in Basra. He was arrested in the aftermath of Maliki’s clampdown on the Mahdi Army in March 2008."
Talisman Gate

Marines, Afghan troops to stay months in Marjah

MARJAH, Afghanistan (AP) - More than 2,000 U.S. Marines and about 1,000 Afghan troops who stormed the Taliban town of Marjah as part of a major NATO offensive against a resurgent Taliban will stay several months to ensure insurgents don't return, Marine commanders said Sunday.

Two Marine battalions and their Afghan counterparts will be stationed in Marjah and help patrol it as part of NATO's "clear, hold, build" strategy, which calls for troops to secure the area, restore a civilian Afghan administration, and bring in aid and public services to win the support of the population, commanders said.

On Sunday, the 1,000 Marines with the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines Regiment were fortifying positions to the north and west of the town, taking over compounds and building others from scratch to create a small garrison, known as a Forward Operating Base, as well as combat outposts and a network of temporary patrol bases, said Capt. Joshua Winfrey, head of Lima Company.

Another battalion was doing the same to the south of Marjah, Winfrey said. About 1,000 Afghan troops will accompany the Marines, he added.

Marine spokesman Capt. Abe Sipe said a more permanent military outpost will facilitate a long-term NATO presence in the town.

"We are going to have a presence in Marjah for some time. There's no plans for anyone to pull out," Sipe said. "The idea is to live among the local nationals because we found that's the best way to partner with local security partners to make Afghans feel safe and not under threat."

Marjah residents had told government officials that they preferred NATO troops to be based in the town itself, instead of being outside, to provide better security.

Winfrey said he has been told that the entire battalion expects to be stationed in Marjah until the end of its deployment in August.

Establishing a credible local government is a key component of NATO's strategy for the longtime Taliban logistical hub and drug trafficking center. Last week, the government installed a new civilian chief, and several hundred Afghan police have already begun patrolling newly cleared areas of Marjah and the surrounding district of Nad Ali.

The Marjah offensive has been the biggest military operation since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion to topple the Taliban's hard-line regime. It's the first major test of NATO's counterinsurgency strategy since President Barack Obama ordered 30,000 new American troops to try to reverse Taliban gains.

But the challenges in routing the Taliban are formidable. A team of suicide attackers struck Friday in the heart of the capital, Kabul, killing at least 16 people in assaults on two small hotels. Half of the dead were foreigners. The attack reminds that the insurgents still have the strength to launch attacks - even in the capital.

On Sunday, three top police commanders in Kabul offered to resign for failing to prevent the attack.

"We are the people responsible for the security of Kabul, we failed to provide that security and we don't want to be responsible for others dying," said Gen. Abdul Ghafar Sayedzada, the chief of Kabul's criminal investigation unit. The city's police chief and deputy police chief also offered to resign, according to the Interior Ministry.

However, the interior minister told all three to continue in their posts until an investigation is finished. At that point, he will decide whether or not to accept their resignations, said ministry spokesman Zemeri Bashary.

In other violence, 11 members of one family were killed Sunday in southern Helmand province when their tractor, with a truck-bed hitched to the back, hit a roadside bomb, said provincial government spokesman Daoud Ahmadi. All aboard died, including two women and two children.

Ahmadi said the Sunday attack occurred in Now Zad district, significantly north of the area where international and Afghan forces launched their military push against the Taliban.

In central Zabul province, a joint Afghan-international force engaged in a gunbattle Sunday with insurgents in Khaki Afghan district, killing six, said provincial government spokesman Mohammad Jan Rasoulyar. The previous night, eight Taliban were arrested, he said.

One Afghan soldier was killed and another one was wounded after their vehicle hit a roadside bomb Sunday near the provincial capital of Qalat, Rasoulyar said.

Two Afghan soldiers were killed Saturday by a roadside bomb near Lashkar Gah, capital of Helmand province, the Ministry of Defense said in a statement.


Hamas seeks extension of detention of UK reporter

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) - A Gaza military prosecutor wants to extend the detention of a British journalist, claiming he poses a security threat, a Hamas government official said Sunday.

Freelance journalist Paul Martin has been held in Gaza since Feb. 14, the first foreigner to be arrested since Hamas seized control of the territory in 2007. Martin's case is being closely watched by international organizations with staff in Gaza as a gauge of how the Hamas government will deal with foreigners.

Martin's initial 15-day arrest warrant expires Monday. At that time, a prosecutor will ask a court to keep Martin in custody, said Hamas Interior Ministry spokesman Emad Ghussein.

Martin's lawyer, Sharhabil Zayim, said that following standard procedure, prosecutors would likely seek another 15 days, the maximum time someone can be held without formal charges being presented.

Hamas officials have not made specific accusations against Martin, but Ghussein has said the journalist poses a threat to Gaza's security.

Martin was arrested in a Gaza military court as he was about to testify on behalf of a Gaza militant who was accused of collaborating with Israel. Hamas security officials routinely round up Palestinians they believe are passing on information about them to Israel.

Zayim said he saw Martin 10 days ago and that the journalist was being treated well. He said he has not been allowed to visit Martin since.

The British Consulate in Jerusalem is waiting for the outcome of Monday's court hearing, said a spokesman, Fadi Adeeb.

Martin, who had been working on a documentary about the accused collaborator, has produced reports for the British Broadcasting Corp. and The Times of London.


Iraqi PM defends ban of candidates before vote

BAGHDAD (AP) - Iraq's prime minister on Sunday defended a decision to ban hundreds of candidates from the upcoming election, saying the decision was not intended to target the country's minority Sunni population.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is up for re-election in the March 7 parliamentary vote, gave a detailed defense of the decision, saying it was made because the candidates were "blatantly propagating Baath Party ideas."

"It's not true that it targeted Sunnis," said al-Maliki. "The decision will not at all affect the Sunni turnout for the election. The decision was made because some of those were blatantly propagating Baath Party ideas."

The decision to keep hundreds of candidates from the election, including a prominent Sunni lawmaker, for alleged ties to Saddam Hussein's ruling party has dominated Iraq's political debate for weeks and reflects the deep sectarian differences that still divide the country.

Many in the country's Sunni minority, which dominated the Baath Party leadership, were outraged by the decision, which they felt unjustly targeted Sunni political figures in an attempt to sideline them from the political process.

In discussing the ban, al-Maliki appeared to distance himself from the two men who initiated the process - Shiite politicians Ali al-Lami and Ahmed Chalabi, who are both running in the election. The two, who head the Accountability and Justice Committee that vetted candidates for ties to the former regime, shocked the Iraqi political system when they announced a list of hundreds of names of people with ties to the former regime.

But al-Maliki emphasized that the legal justification for the ban came not from their initial decision but from a later committee, set up with parliamentary backing, to investigate their findings. The question of whether the Accountability and Justice Committee had a legal basis to take action has been a key source of contention in this debate.

Ever since the fall of Saddam in 2003, Iraq has been torn about how to deal with the former members of the ruling regime. A decision by the U.S. Coalition Provisional Authority to disband the Iraqi army and purge the government of tens of thousands of former Baath Party members has been widely credited with helping incite the insurgency.

In 2008, thousands were allowed to retake government jobs as part of a national reconciliation process, but last fall tensions heightened again when al-Maliki accused Baathists of being behind a series of bombings targeting government buildings in Baghdad.

The Shiite prime minister gained popularity as a leader who was able to bring relative security and stability to this nation shattered by vicious sectarian fighting, in partnership with U.S. forces. The winner of next Sunday's vote will preside over a drawdown of U.S. forces that will see all combat troops leave Iraq by the end of August and all American forces go home by 2011.

When asked whether he might ask for any U.S. forces to remain after 2011, al-Maliki said he was not afraid to ask for troops if needed but that he thought it would not be necessary.

"In my estimation as prime minister and with my knowledge of the capability of the Iraqi army and police, I think we are not in need of them, God willing," he said.

The prime minister said security cooperation in the future between the U.S. and Iraq might not require American forces on the ground, but rather an agreement that could be activated if Iraq were to be in danger.


He admits it publicly, banned for their ideas...

Donny Deutsch, ‘Coconut’ Bigot, Typical Democrat

During an interview with MSNBC’s Joy Behar on Feb. 21, MSNBC’s Donny Deutsch let his bigot flag fly. While fulminating against the tea-party movement in general and in particular against the candidate known as “the tea-party candidate,” who gave the rousing opening speech at CPAC, Deutsch blurted: “You almost need that blank piece of paper. That’s the new model. Like, you know, this coconut (Marco) Rubio down in Florida.”

In settings like MSNBC (but usually backstage) the term coconut (brown on the outside white on the inside) is generally used to castigate “Hispanics” who ignore marching orders barked by Democratic/MSM drill sergeants—same as “Oreo” for similarly uppity blacks.

Never mind that the Cuban-American Marco Rubio is probably more purely Caucasian than Elvis Presley, Hank Williams, Oral Roberts, Johnny Depp among many other southerners who boast Choctaw/Cherokee heritage. We’ll deal with Deutsch’s stupidity in another article. This one’s about Deutsch’s bigotry, a derivative of his stupidity.

Exit polls show that Cuban-Americans voted against Obama by the highest margins—and by far!—of any U.S. ethnic group, including “anglos.” So we’re fair-game for ethnic slurs—and have been for decades. In fact, Deutsch has as much reason to fulminate against Cuban-Americans as the most virulent nativist. Regarding the U.S. political mainstream, Cuban-Americans obstinately refuse to assimilate. To wit:

The Democratic Party controls the U.S. legislature, most state legislatures, most state governorships and boasts–by far–the most registered voters in the U.S.

Yet these insufferable Cuban-Americans have traditionally snubbed all pied pipers from America’s majority party, along with their allies and cohorts in the America’s mainstream media. Instead Cuban-Americans have always gone whole-hog for Republicans—from Nixon to Reagan to both Bushes. In the last two presidential elections the voters of their adopted country gave George W. Bush barely half of their votes, whereas these exasperating Cuban-Americans —again oblivious, or brazenly defiant of their countrymen —gave him 80 per cent of theirs.

Cuban-American campaign consultant, Alex Castellanos, is widely credited with designing the most damaging campaign ads against John Kerry during the 2004 election, prompting America’s mainstream media to dub him “vicious” “irresponsible” and “the father of modern attack ad.” Earlier Castellanos, along with fellow Cuban-American Jose Cardenas, had been instrumental in helping elect Jesse Helms, one of America’s most vilified politicians by her majority political party and its mainstream media cronies.

This political intransigence has often goaded the Democratic/Media axis to enraged sputterings against Cuban-Americans. “Truly disgusting!” was how Bryant Gumbel characterized them during the media circus preceding the shanghaiing of Elian Gonzalez. Three years ago Georgetown professor Norman Birnbaum, an advisor to three presidential candidates for America’s majority political party, labeled “Miami-Cubans” a “truly repellent” group. Two years ago, one of America’s most influential newspapers, the Washington Post, one that habitually endorses America’s majority political party, ran a cartoon celebrating Cuban-Americans expulsion from the U.S. en masse.

Study the cartoon and imagine the fire (literal, perhaps) if instead of fedoras (which are rarely worn by Cuban-Americans, BTW) the group had worn kuffiyehs, burkhas and chadors. What if the boat’s passengers had been labeled “nappy-headed” and were headed for Africa? Imagine the rallies in Los Angeles if they’d worn sombreros!

Such cartoons are indeed imaginable with other ethnic groups — but only with Uncle Sam cast as the villain, wearing a white hood, a swastika, or an Ann Coulter mask. In dispatching Cuban-American Republicans, Uncle Sam smiles benevolently while handing the boat’s ethnic occupants off to a Stalinist gulag. “Ha-ha!”

The head explodes imagining the MSM reaction against such depictions against any other ethnic group.

During their convention in 2004, America’s majority political party feted Michael Moore as their honored guest, seating him in a place of honor right next to Jimmy Carter. “Cuban-Americans,” wrote this honored guest for America’s majority party in his book Downsize This, “are responsible for sleaze and influence-peddling in American politics. In every incident of national torment that has deflated our country for the past three decades; Cuban exiles are always present and involved.”

In a nation where the mildest, most off-handed–or even unwitting, see “black hole,” “niggardly”– mention of ethnic traits commits the professional and social equivalent of a capital crime the usual watchdogs on ethnic sensitivity (the Washington Post and Democratic party always among the most vigilant) issued nary a peep against the blatant bigotry just mentioned, much less in defense of the vilified ethnic group.

Earlier immigrant groups have all yielded to mainstream American political enlightenment. Though the Reagan Revolution made inroads, over a third of Italian-Americans remain registered with America’s majority political party, along with almost half of Irish-Americans. Jewish-Americans habitually skew 65-85 percent for America’s majority party.

Yet these unspeakable Cuban-Americans simply will not see the light—simply will not politically assimilate. Not all the King’s Horses or all the King’s Men can bring them around to follow the lead of the majority in their adopted country and register Democratic. Even with the third generation registering to vote, a measly 13 per cent of these incurably obtuse and unenlightened people register with America’s majority political party!

This is the most diminutive Democratic registration of any ethnic group in the U.S., and 72% of these troglodytes are registered with America’s minority party (Republican.) This is the highest for any ethnic group in the U.S. — more proof that these octopus-eating, fast-talking, wildly-gesticulating people are genetically wired to buck mainstream American norms!

Big Journalism
Nancy P claimed the Health care bill will reduce cost and create 4 million jobs?

They're really people that stupid out there?

And now at the roundtable they claimed the bill will save billions over the years by offering large subsidies to pay for the universal mandate???

US government rescinds 'leave internet alone' policy

The US government’s policy of leaving the Internet alone is over, according to Obama’s top official at the Department of Commerce.

Instead, an “Internet Policy 3.0” approach will see policy discussions between government agencies, foreign governments, and key Internet constituencies, according to Assistant Secretary Larry Strickling, with those discussions covering issues such as privacy, child protection, cybersecurity, copyright protection, and Internet governance.

The outcomes of such discussions will be “flexible” but may result in recommendations for legislation or regulation, Strickling said in a speech at the Media Institute in Washington this week.

The new approach is a far cry from a US government that consciously decided not to intrude into the internet’s functioning and growth and in so doing allowed an academic network to turn into a global communications phenomenon.

Strickling referred to these roots arguing that it was “the right policy for the United States in the early stages of the Internet, and the right message to send to the rest of the world.” But, he continued, “that was then and this is now. As we at NTIA approach a wide range of Internet policy issues, we take the view that we are now in the third generation of Internet policy making.”

Outlining three decades of internet evolution - from transition to commercialization, from the garage to Main Street, and now, starting in 2010, the “Policy 3.0” approach - Strickling argued that with the internet is now a social network as well a business network. “We must take rules more seriously.”

He cited a number of examples where this new approach was needed: end users worried about credit card transactions, content providers who want to prevent their copyright, companies concerned about hacking, network neutrality, and foreign governments worried about Internet governance systems.

The decision to effectively end the policy that made the internet what it is today is part of a wider global trend of governments looking to impose rules on use of the network by its citizens.

In the UK, the Digital Economy Bill currently making its way through Parliament has been the subject of significant controversy for advocating strict rules on copyright infringement and threatening to ban people from the internet if they are found to do so. The bill includes a wide variety of other measures, including giving regulator Ofcom a wider remit, forcing ISPs to monitor their customers’ behavior, and allowing the government to take over the dot-uk registry.

In New Zealand, a similar measure to the UK’s cut-off provision has been proposed by revising the Copyright Act to allow a tribunal to fine those found guilty of infringing copyright online as well as suspend their Internet accounts for up to six months. And in Italy this week, three Google executives were sentenced to jail for allowing a video that was subsequently pulled down to be posted onto its YouTube video site.

Internationally, the Internet Governance Forum – set up by under a United Nations banner to deal with global governance issues – is due to end its experimental run this year and become an acknowledged institution. However, there are signs that governments are increasingly dominating the IGF, with civil society and the Internet community sidelined in the decision-making process.

In this broader context, the US government’s newly stated policy is more in line with the traditional laissez-faire internet approach. Internet Policy 3.0 also offers a more global perspective than the isolationist approach taken by the previous Bush administration.

In explicitly stating that foreign governments will be a part of the upcoming discussions, Strickling recognizes the United States’ unique position as the country that gives final approval for changes made to the internet’s “root zone.” Currently the global Internet is dependent on an address book whose contents are changed through a contract that the US government has granted to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Number (ICANN), based in Los Angeles.

ICANN recently adjusted its own agreement with the US government to give it more autonomy and now reports to the global Internet community through a series of reviews. Strickling sits on the panel of one of those reviews.

Overall, this new approach could enable the US government to regain the loss of some of its direct influence through recommendations made in policy reports. But internet old hands will still decry the loss of a policy that made the network what it is today.

The Register

Great, just what we needed around here.Way too many crazies on the internet, we need the O man to come clean it up.

Just leaving it alone has worked so well, they feel a need to fix it.

US soldiers kill Iraqi tribal chiefs son

[Al Arabiya Latest] U.S. soldiers killed an Iraqi tribal chief's son and wounded his wife in what the Americans on Saturday called a tragic accident, although local accounts of the incident differed.

U.S. troops were travelling through the district of Kanaan, northeast of Baghdad, late on Thursday when Zhaheri tribe chief Thaher Zaihud al-Zhaheri's son, Ahmed, walked outside the family's front door and was shot dead, the tribal leader said.

Further gunfire wounded Zhaheri's wife in the leg.

According to the U.S. military, American soldiers were conducting a reconnaissance patrol ahead of a combined operation with Iraqi security forces when the "tragic accident" occurred. "Villagers responded to what they thought were intruders and began firing in the darkness, which caused other residents to come out of their homes and also fire their rifles," a statement said.

"Thinking they were under attack, the U.S. soldiers returned fire to protect themselves. Regrettably, as a result of this gunfire exchange, a young man was killed and a woman was wounded."

Investigation launched
The statement said an investigation had been launched. According to Zhaheri, however, there was no shooting prior to the family hearing a noise near their home and they thought there might be thieves in their village, Saisabanah.

"Ahmed went outside and when he opened the door and walked outside, the Americans shot and killed him," he told AFP.

"They continued shooting at our house and one bullet hit my wife's leg."

Zhaheri's account of the incident was repeated by an Iraqi military officer in Diyala's provincial security operations centre.

Saisabanah is a village of around 10 houses, and families there are known to have fought U.S. forces since the 2003 invasion.

Zhaheri's wife Sabiha Nahath Saud, 56, was in stable condition, according to Ahmed Alwan, a doctor at the main hospital in Baquba, Diyala's provincial capital.

Al Arabiya

Al-Qaida bomber calls for attacks on Jordan spies

CAIRO — An al-Qaida double agent that killed seven CIA agents and Jordanian spy has called for jihad in Jordan and attacks on its intelligence agency in a new video message.

Humam Khalil Abu Mulal al-Balawi described Sunday in the 43-minute video that appeared on jihadi Web sites his recruitment by Jordanian intelligence and how he double crossed them.

The video was apparently filmed shortly before the 32-year-old al-Balawi blew himself up at a CIA facility on Dec. 30 in Afghanistan's eastern province of Khost where he'd been invited to reveal information on al-Qaida.

Al-Balawi said he had only expected to kill his Jordanian handler, Ali bin Zeid, but the addition of the CIA members was a windfall.

Al-Balawi called for attacks on Jordanian intelligence agents everywhere.


Terror's new breeding ground

LATE last year, under the watchful eye of Australia's security services, Sydney man "Abdullah" boarded a plane out of Mascot airport, bound for the Middle East. An associate of the nine-man cell that was recently convicted of preparing for a terrorist act in Sydney, the man had been under close surveillance for several years. But on this occasion, it was his destination that set red lights flashing in counter-terrorism circles.
He was travelling to Yemen, now regarded among CT professionals as "the new Afghanistan" for al-Qa'ida, and a magnet for Australian and other Western supporters of the global jihadist cause.

Yemen has played a central role in the emergence of the global jihadi movement. It is the ancestral homeland of Osama bin Laden and of Jemaah Islamiah founders Abu Bakar Bashir and Abdullah Sungkar. It was the site of al-Qa'ida's first anti-US attack, against US troops on their way to Somalia in December 1992. It was a launch pad for the 1998 al-Qa'ida bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 people and injured hundreds. It was also the scene of the 2000 bombing of the American warship the USS Cole in Aden harbour.

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The notorious el-Iman university in Sanaa, founded by Sheik Abdul Majeed al-Zindani, listed by the US Treasury as a "specially designated terrorist", is regarded as a hub of jihadi activity. Yemen has proven a fertile breeding ground for extremism. It is the poorest country in the Middle East, with one-third of the population unemployed and 60 million weapons outside of government hands for a population of 20 million. It has a corrupt and ineffectual government that has lost control of large swaths of the country as it battles a Shia rebellion in the north, a separatist insurgency in the south, and a growing band of al-Qa'ida fugitives who have fled the crackdowns in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Human rights abuses committed by the military forces of President Ali Abdullah Saleh have only inflamed the various groups opposed to his government.

Abdullah was one of at least 20 Australians known to have travelled to Yemen in recent years, whose movements are being monitored by ASIO and counter-terrorism police. The group includes several people with links to the convicted terrorists who were sentenced last Monday in Sydney to up to 28 years in jail.

Their activities illustrate a key point of the federal government's white paper on counter-terrorism released last week: that successes against al-Qa'ida and its affiliates in Afghanistan and Pakistan have been offset by the rise of militancy elsewhere, most notably in Yemen and neighbouring Somalia. And Australia is directly at risk as a result.

Australia's ambassador for counter-terrorism Bill Paterson reinforced the point at a national security conference in Sydney on Thursday, saying Yemen and North Africa have become "new safe havens" for global jihadists.

"Yemen especially is at risk of becoming a magnet for radicalised individuals from elsewhere to join together to train and perhaps take the step from radicalism to violent extremism, and then to project back into other parts of the globe," Paterson says.

Equally worrying for the authorities are contacts between certain suspected radicals in Australia and the newly notorious American-born Yemeni-based cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. He is now on the US most-wanted list for his links to the so-called "underpants bomber", Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried to blow up an American passenger plane en route to Detroit on Christmas Day. Abdulmutallab reportedly named Awlaki as his recruiter and trainer. Awlaki also gave spiritual advice to Nidal Malik Hasan, the American soldier who shot up the Fort Hood army base last November, leaving 13 people dead and seven wounded.

To the concern of Australian authorities, counter-terrorism agencies have monitored a stream of communications between Awlaki's group in Yemen and a small circle of followers in Australia. The contacts include mobile phone and email messages. Videotaped copies of Awlaki's sermons, in which he espouses the cause of violent jihad, have also been circulated among this group.

"His teachings are of great concern to us," Detective Superintendent John O'Reilly, Commander of the NSW Police Counter-Terrorism and Special Tactics Operations Group, tells The Australian.

Awlaki, a charismatic preacher and native English speaker who has a blog and a Facebook page, has been described as "the bin Laden of the internet".

O'Reilly says the potential for internet recruitment of Australians and other Western supporters is a more worrying issue for the authorities than the possibility of their physically travelling to Yemen for religious instruction or military training.

"The material that's transmitted via the internet is perhaps where he's most influential," O'Reilly says.

The activities of Abdullah, who has not returned to Australia since his recent trip to Yemen, illustrate why Australian authorities are so concerned.

Abdullah had only recently had his passport returned by ASIO, after it was confiscated when he was judged "likely to support or participate in acts of politically motivated violence". ASIO's interest in him dates back to 2000 when, after doing the haj pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia, he continued to Pakistan with a group of friends from Sydney who went on to train with the Pakistani militant group Lashkar-e-Toiba, which had not at that stage been banned in Australia. When interviewed later by the Australian Federal Police, Abdullah denied undergoing training. However former Guantanamo Bay inmate David Hicks told the AFP that he and Abdullah trained in the same camp at the same time.

Abdullah was interviewed by ASIO seven times between 2000 and 2004, and several more times after that date. His home was raided in 2002 and again in 2005. The agency's interest was piqued by the fact he was working at the Indo-Malay halal butchery in Lakemba in Sydney's southwest, which was run by an Indonesian-Australian identified as the deputy leader of the Australian branch of the Indonesian militant group, Jemaah Islamiah. The butchery, which was under surveillance and had its phones tapped, was also a contact point for the French terrorist Willie Brigitte in 2003.

Abdullah was investigated again during Operation Pendennis, which resulted in the arrests and convictions of the nine-man Sydney terror cell, the last of whom were sentenced last week. Evidence produced by the crown revealed that Abdullah had been involved in the purchase of laboratory equipment with one of the cell members. He claimed it was for use in his perfume business.

However, judge Anthony Whealy said in his sentencing remarks that the equipment "was plainly to be used for the purposes of the conspiracy". The police were keen to charge Abdullah but the evidence against him was deemed to be weaker than that against the nine men who were ultimately charged.

Abdullah had first planned to move to Yemen with his wife and eight children in 2004, but his passport was confiscated by ASIO on the eve of his departure.

He told ASIO his visa to Yemen had been arranged by a friend from Sydney, a Polish-born Australian, Marek Samulski, who was already living in Yemen.

Samulski was arrested in the Yemeni capital Sanaa in October 2006, and accused by Yemeni police of being part of an al-Qa'ida ring that was funnelling weapons to the Islamist insurgency in neighbouring Somalia.

Two other Australians, who had long been of keen interest to security agencies, were also detained in the Sanaa raid. They were two brothers, Mustafa and Ilyas bin Ayub, the sons of one-time Australian JI leader, Abdul Rahim Ayub, and his former wife, Sydney woman Rabiah Hutchinson. The brothers had travelled to Yemen to undertake Islamic studies and lived in the same apartment block as Samulski.

The Yemeni Interior Ministry claimed initially that the three Australians had confessed to involvement in al-Qa'ida weapons smuggling. But the Ayub brothers were released without charge after seven weeks, when their Yemeni lawyer announced that the allegations against them had been found to be false. Samulski was detained for longer while his file was referred to terrorism prosecutors for possible charges. But he too was ultimately released without charge. He has not returned to Australia since.

Some members of the circle being monitored by ASIO say the arrests and subsequent release of the trio are proof that Muslims who travel to Yemen purely for religious reasons are being unfairly targeted by security agencies. They say that Yemen is a popular destination purely because the Prophet Mohammed is said to have instructed his followers to travel to the country neighbouring Saudi Arabia, which is regarded as part of the heartland of Islam.

However, in December a Yemen-based group calling itself al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), led by a Yemeni former aide to bin Laden, Nasir Wuhaishi, claimed responsibility for the Christmas Day bombing attempt. The highly organised group, which has its own online magazine and training camps, has previously claimed to act on "directives from our emir, Osama bin Laden".

An international conference was held in London last month to examine ways of preventing Yemen becoming "the new Afghanistan", although many experts believe this has already occurred. The Pentagon has committed $US150 million ($167m) in military assistance to the Yemeni government and provided intelligence and hardware to support a recent series of airstrikes on suspected militant training camps.

However experts warn the risk of Yemen emerging as a new Afghanistan may also be exacerbated by these actions. Sarah Phillips of the University of Sydney warns of the risks in a report for the Lowy Institute, "Al-Qa'ida, tribes and instability in Yemen". She says the US-backed strikes are viewed as an affront to Yemeni sovereignty, and give AQAP "a narrative to extend its pitch as a nationalist movement fighting injustice".

The Australian

Task Force Black by Mark Urban

On 30 May last year Operation Crichton, the UK special forces deployment in Iraq, ended. Over the previous six years operatives from the SAS, the Special Boat Service and a range of other elite units had killed or captured 3,500 people. Their own number had rarely exceeded 150 at any one time.

The majority of targets on near-nightly raids were captured. Between 350 and 400 were killed. Most of these were senior Islamic militants including a number linked to al-Qaida. Around 50 civilians were killed as well.

That Mark Urban, a BBC journalist also known for excellent recent books on the Napoleonic Wars, has been able to tell this story is a testament to his determination and investigative skill. Few reporters succeed in cultivating any sources within the closed world of the British special forces; Urban has found dozens who have spoken with unprecedented candour. The result is gripping and troubling in equal measure and an invaluable addition to the increasingly comprehensive literature on the Iraq war.

The author had to battle the Ministry of Defence to have his book published, and one wonders what reception a work more critical of British special forces' operations might have received in Whitehall. The author's personal admiration for the men who constitute his subject is clear. Language veers from the breathless – "Britain's hand-picked troops", the "SAS had got its man"– to the soldierly – firefights are "epic", problems are "aggro". The book reads extremely well – too well in a sense – with almost every chapter starting with helicopters circling at dawn, Land Rovers leaving bases in clouds of dust or C-130 transporters taking off or coming into land. There is a limited lay vocabulary available to describe the intense and complex reality of war but the style occasionally jars in what is otherwise a serious and accomplished work.

The narrow focus of the book sometimes forces the author to either ignore the broader context, local or regional, or condense extremely complex issues. Urban's two-page explanation of who or what was producing the horribly effective "explosively formed projectiles" which started featuring in roadside bombings of coalition troops, and why their source – probably Iran – was controversial, is nicely done and his unpicking of the political and legal labyrinth surrounding issues of prisoner detention and rules of engagements elegant and authoritative.

However, Urban's analysis is more difficult to sustain when he says that British special forces were deployed in the north and west of Iraq in 2003 to take the place of massive bodies of American troops which were prevented from reaching the theatre because "the rulers of certain countries did not want to risk the wrath of the Arab street by allowing overt movements of US troops through their ports towards Iraq" even though "they had been prepared to accede to the launching of highly secret coalition attacks from their territory". This was, Urban states, "a typical double-dealing Middle Eastern approach". Quite apart from recycling a terrible old stereotype about wily, untrustworthy Orientals, the most prominent among "those certain countries" was Turkey, and Ankara's choice was not about double-dealing (nor clearly the Arab street) but, as it was the Turkish parliament that voted to reject the Americans' multi-billion dollar sweeteners, about democracy. Urban does however skilfully communicate a mass of often technical information about his core subject without ever boring the reader.

Nor does Urban spare the rest of the British army. He argues that the UK's special forces effectively saved the nation's military honour in what was otherwise a war marked by early complacency, middling incompetence and finally a spineless lack of will. Urban quotes American commanders diplomatically praising the UK's contribution, though quite how critical the work of the SAS in Iraq was has to be seen in perspective. If the SAS killed or captured around 3,500, then the equivalent figure for the Joint Special Operations Command's US tasks across Iraq were, Urban says, estimated at 11,000-12,000 militants, of whom around 3,000 may have been killed.

In Task Force Black Iraqis rarely feature other than as militants to be killed or captured, civilians who get shot by accident, as corrupt policemen or as weak and venal politicians. There is little sense of the Iraqi people as players in their own destiny. This is perhaps inevitable. David Kilcullen, an Australian counterinsurgency expert, quotes an American special forces operator in Iraq saying he had "never met an Iraqi who wasn't in handcuffs".

Special forces are a high-grade specialised tool to be used sparingly in given circumstances. Their courage and skill is beyond doubt. But I wonder if they are entirely worthy of the enormous attention we lavish on them. Even with excellent books such as this.


A mistaken war that needs more troops

WASHINGTON -- Iraq's March 7 national election and the formation of a new government that will follow carry huge implications for both Iraqis and American policy. It appears now that the results are unlikely to resolve key political struggles that could return the country to sectarianism and violence.

If so, President Obama may find himself later this year considering whether once again to break his campaign promises about ending the war, and to offer to keep tens of thousands of troops in Iraq for several more years. Surprisingly, that probably is the best course for him, and for Iraqi leaders, to pursue.

Whether or not the elections bring the long-awaited political breakthrough that genuinely ends the fighting there, 2010 is likely to be a turning-point year in the war, akin to the summer of 2003 (when the United States realized that it faced an insurgency) and 2006 (when that insurgency morphed into a small but vicious civil war and American policy came to a dead end). For good or ill, this is likely the year we will begin to see the broad outlines of post-occupation Iraq. The early signs are not good, with the latest being the decision over the weekend of the leading Sunni party, the National Dialogue Front, to withdraw from the elections.

The political situation is far less certain, and I think less stable, than most Americans believe. A retired Marine colonel I know, Gary Anderson, just returned from Iraq and predicts a civil war or military coup by September. Another friend, the journalist Nir Rosen, avers that Iraq is on a long-term peaceful course. Both men know Iraq well, having spent years working there. I have not seen such a wide discrepancy in expert views since late 2005.

The period surrounding the surge of 2007 has been misremembered. It was not about simply sending 30,000 more troops to Iraq; it was about using force differently, moving the troops off big bases to work with Iraqi units and live among the people. Perhaps even more significantly, the surge was a change in American attitudes, with more humility about what could be done, more willingness to listen to Iraqis, and with quietly but sharply reduced ambitions.

The Bush administration's grandiose original vision of transforming Iraq into a beacon of democracy that would alter the Middle East and drain the swamps of terrorism was scuttled and replaced by the more realistic goal of getting American forces out and leaving behind a country that was somewhat stable and, with luck, perhaps democratic and respectful of human rights. As part of the shift, the American commander, Gen. David Petraeus, also effectively put the Sunni insurgency on the American payroll.

Looking back now, I think the surge was the right thing to do. In rejecting the view of the majority of his military advisers and embracing the course proposed by a handful of dissidents, President Bush found his finest moment. That said, the larger goal of the surge was to facilitate a political breakthrough, which has not happened.

All the existential questions that plagued Iraq before the surge remain unanswered. How will oil revenue be shared among the country's major groups? What is to be the fundamental relationship between Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds? Will Iraq have a strong central government or be a loose confederation? And what will be the role of Iran (for my money, the biggest winner in the Iraq war thus far)?

Unfortunately, all of these questions have led to violence in the past, and could again just as the Obama administration's timeline calls for troops to leave areas that are far from quiet. The plan this year is to pull out about 10,000 troops a month for five months, beginning in late spring. That will halve the American military presence, with the remainder (other than a "residual force" of unspecified size) scheduled to be withdrawn in 2011. The withdrawal plan was written on the assumption that the elections would be held late in 2009 or early in 2010. Under the plan, troop levels would be kept level to ensure stability in a vulnerable period, especially if the Sunnis were to feel that the electoral process was unfair, or if they were not given a role in the new government commensurate with their success at the polls.

But given the changed timetable, just as Iraqi political leaders are struggling to form a new government, American military leaders will be distracted by the myriad tasks of supervising major troop movements. On top of that, the deeper the troop withdrawals go, the more potentially destabilizing they will be, because the first withdrawals will be made in areas that are considered more secure, or where Iraqi forces are deemed more reliable or evenhanded.

By June, American troops may be leaving areas that are far from quiet, and where new tensions may be brewing as a result of the elections. Once again, the United States would be rushing toward failure in Iraq, as it did so often under the Bush administration, trying to pass responsibility to Iraqi officials and institutions before they are ready for the task.

By late summer, the Obama administration may find itself in the uncomfortable position of reconsidering its vows to get out of combat in Iraq by August and to remove all troops by the end of next year. This will be politically difficult for the president, but he has shown admirable flexibility in his handling of Iraq. My impression is that the American people now wish they had never heard of Iraq, but understand just what a mess it is and are willing to give the president a surprising amount of leeway on it.

Extending the American military presence will be even more politically controversial in Iraq, and for that reason, it would be best to let Iraqi leaders make the first public move to re-open the status of forces agreement of 2008, which calls for American troops to be out of the country by the end of next year. But I think leaders in both countries may come to recognize that the best way to deter a return to civil war is to find a way to keep 30,000 to 50,000 United States service members in Iraq for many years to come.

These troops' missions would be far narrower than during the surge era, and would be primarily to train and advise Iraqi security forces and to carry out counterterrorism missions. (It is actually hard to get below 30,000 and still have an effective force; many troops are needed for logistics, maintenance, medical, intelligence, communications and headquarters jobs, and additional infantry units are then needed to protect the people performing those tasks.)

Such a relatively small, tailored force is not big enough to wage a war, but it might be enough to deter a new one from breaking out. Such a civil war would be a three- or four-sided affair, with the Shiites breaking into pro- and anti-Iranian factions. It could also easily metastasize into a regional war. Neighboring powers like Turkey and Iran are already involved in Iraqi affairs, and the Sunni Arab states would be unlikely to stand by and watch a Shiite-dominated regime in Baghdad slaughter the Sunni minority. A regional war in the middle of the world's oil patch could shake the global economy to its foundations and make the current recession look mild.

In addition, a continued American military presence may help Iraq move forward politically. No one there particularly likes having the Americans around, but many groups seem to trust the Americans as honest brokers. And there would be a moral, humanitarian and political benefit: Having American soldiers accompany Iraqi units may improve the behavior of Iraqi forces, discouraging relapses to Saddam Hussein-era abuses, or the use of force for private ends and feuds. Advisers not only instruct Iraqi commanders, they also monitor them.

As a longtime critic of the American invasion of Iraq, I am not happy about advocating a continued military presence there. Yet, to echo the counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen, just because you invade a country stupidly doesn't mean you should leave it stupidly. The best argument against keeping troops in Iraq is the one some American military officers make, which is that a civil war is inevitable, and that by staying all we are doing is postponing it. That may be so, but I don't think it is worth gambling to find out.

Oregon Live

Maybe more like a parallel universe

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Journalists complain of pre-poll intimidation in Iraq north

SULAIMANIYAH, Iraq — Kurdish journalists covering the campaign for Iraq's March 7 general election have been subjected to attacks and have had their movements restricted, media groups said on Friday.

Reporters Without Borders, a press freedom advocacy group, published a statement cataloguing "a spate of threats, harassment and physical violence against journalists in Iraqi Kurdistan".

In the most brazen criticism of the intimidation reporters have felt, one of the autonomous Kurdish region's newspapers left its front page blank on Wednesday except for the headline: "You Have Guns, We Have Pens".

Inside the Hawlati (Citizen in Kurdish) bi-weekly was an open letter to Iraqi President Jalal Talabani calling for an end to attacks against journalists.

"You must intervene to stop attacks against independent journalists, prosecute the perpetrators, and allow journalists to carry out their work," said the open letter, written by Kamal Rauf, Hawlati's editor in chief.

The publication said one of its journalists was attacked and had his equipment confiscated by unidentified men near the offices of Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) party.

Rauf told Reporters Without Borders that he had spoken to regional prime minister Barham Salih, who had pledged an investigation.

The international press watchdog listed that and several other incidents against journalists in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Among them were, on February 19, an attack on two reporters working for the Speda television network, which belongs to an opposition party, in the regional capital Arbil.

A day earlier, the publisher of Hawlati, Ara Ibrahim, and a journalist for the Livin magazine and the Goran TV station were attacked in the region's second city of Sulaimaniyah.

Ahmad Mira, editor of the Lafine political magazine added that the attacks demonstrated that the region's two main parties, the PUK and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of regional president Massud Barzani, "considered journalists to be enemies".

Iraq's election commission has imposed a 9:00 pm curfew on campaigning in Sulaimaniyah province after a number of violent incidents were reported.

The province has been the focus of considerable tension between rival Kurdish parties, vying for maximum leverage in the event that the Kurds are kingmakers in the next Iraqi government.

A new Kurdish list called Goran (Change) and comprised of former PUK activists emerged in regional polls last year as a rival to the two main Kurdish parties.


Woody Harrelson is a changed man after Oscar role

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Environmental activist, hemp promoter, peacenik, surfer dude. Woody Harrelson has been called a lot of things, but until recently it is unlikely he has been called a friend of the U.S. military.

The actor says he is a changed man, however, after working on his movie "The Messenger," in which he portrays an officer in the army's casualty notification service -- officers who tell families their loved ones have died serving their country.

Harrelson, 48, has been nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Captain Tony Stone, though winning seems unlikely. Yet he believes he may already have won just by being nominated for his supporting role and by being able to tell the tale of soldiers and their families.

"It's a big thing to say, but I really think it changed me on some fundamental level in my heart," Harrelson told Reuters. "I felt a powerful connection to these servicemen and women, and those experiences of notifications."

To prepare for the movie, Harrelson visited the Walter Reed Army Medical Center to talk to wounded soldiers and notification officers, and since that time, he has returned on his own just to say "hi" to the "friends" he made there.

It seems a far cry from the man who has spoken out against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and whose liberal political positions are well-known. Yet, like others, Harrelson is quick to separate the wars from the men and women fighting them.

"It (the movie) helped me see them for who they are, people who don't make a lot of money and do this out of profound love for their country, profound patriotism I admire," he said.


As Captain Stone, Harrelson plays a veteran officer paired with a young sergeant (Ben Foster) just back from combat and assigned to the notification service.

"The Messenger" focuses on Foster's character and how he deals with the families he informs, their grief and the often angry reactions when notified of their loved ones' death.

While he is conflicted, Harrelson's Stone maintains stiff military discipline when mentoring his younger colleague.

"When we met, (Harrelson) described himself as a hippie from Maui," screenwriter Alessandro Camon told Reuters. "To my knowledge, he had never before played a soldier...that kind of character is really a stretch from who he is."

Other actors who received Oscar nominations for their supporting roles include Christoph Waltz of "Inglourious Basterds," Christopher Plummer of "The Last Station," Stanley Tucci for "The Lovely Bones" and Matt Damon in "Invictus."

Oscar watchers think Waltz is favored because he has won several other honors already. And Harrelson is quick to say his odds of taking home the top film award on March 7 are small.

"I don't have much of a prospect of winning," he said. "But sometimes people see nominations and think, 'I should watch that movie,' so I hope it gets people to see 'The Messenger.'"

The Oscar nod is Harrelson's second, having been nominated for the lead role of adult magazine publisher and free speech advocate Larry Flynt in 1996's "The People vs. Larry Flynt."

He said back then he was nervous to be at the ceremony, but not anymore, now that he's a Hollywood veteran.

"I really feel like I'll be capable of going there and just having a ball," he said. "It's not whether you win or lose, it's whether you have fun. I think I'll have maximum fun."


It must be the apocalypse, earthquakes, Harrelson, the "O"ne, can't all be coincidence, right.