State of the Union

America’s Warlords in Afghanistan

Lt. Gen. Joseph Anderson and Maj. Gen. Abdul Raziq (Sgt. Antony S. Lee/Army)
Lt. Gen. Joseph Anderson and Maj. Gen. Abdul Raziq (Sgt. Antony S. Lee/Army)

Thanks to a tawdry investigation and controversial plea deal this month, David Petraeus will forever be known as the American general who gave over classified ‘black books’ to his mistress-biographer. But his real legacy appears to be playing out like a slow moving train wreck back in the provinces of Afghanistan.

According to a Human Rights Watch report released in early March, Afghanistan is under siege by a “new generation” of strongmen, warlords, and militias that are terrorizing local populations. Their menacing presence only effectively differs from the Taliban in that they have enjoyed the complicity and support of U.S. forces—including former General Petraeus—and major elements of Afghanistan’s government.

So while Petraeus is busy advising the White House on what to do with Iraq—another country whose reconstruction he left unfinished—unchecked corruption and violence threaten to undo every last good thing the West has tried to accomplish in Afghanistan since 2001.

“The Afghan government and its supporters should recognize that insecurity comes not only from the insurgency, but from corrupt and unaccountable forces having official backing,” Phelim Kine, HRW’s deputy Asia director, said in a March 3 release.

“Kabul and its foreign supporters need to end their toxic codependency on strongmen to give Afghanistan reasonable hope of a viable, rights-respecting strategy for the country’s development.”

HRW found, through numerous interviews with civilians, cross-checked with official inquiries and independent reporting, that Afghan Local Police (ALP) commanders were behind many of the human rights abuses. Petraeus, during his brief time as Commander of the International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) in Afghanistan (2010-11), was the key facilitator of the ALP, calling it a “community watch” of sorts, and considered it critical to his counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy in Afghanistan.

“This program mobilizes communities in self-defense against those who would undermine security in their areas,” Petraeus told congress in March 2011. “For that reason, the growth of these elements is of particular concern to the Taliban, whose ability to intimidate the population is limited considerably by it.”

It turns out that while Petraeus was burnishing his bio with black book fodder for Paula Broadwell’s 2012 hagiographical All In: The Education of General David Petraeus, his “community watch” was becoming a village horror show for Afghan civilians in a number of ways—right under the noses of the U.S. Special Forces who armed and trained them, and who in many cases insisted on appointing their commanders, sometimes against the locals’ adamant opposition.

“What has been put into this (HRW) report, everyone knew for years,” said Thomas Ruttig, a co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, in a Skype interview with TAC from Kabul. Not only the ALP, he said, but private militias, security companies, strongmen and their minions, have flourished because of their usefulness in the war against the Taliban.

Despite the numerous allegations of criminal activity and brutality committed against the population, he said, “leading U.S. military commanders continue to present themselves with these people in a very friendly manner.” For him, “this is really shocking. War is violent, but there are real excesses here that go far beyond any red line that is acceptable.”

By September 2012 Petraeus was long gone from the scene, and his vaunted ALP program was slipping into disgrace. While the ALP was credited for keeping the peace in some places, burgeoning complaints of abuse and corruption in others forced the U.S. Army to halt recruitment that fall. By then, the ALP was 16,000 strong nationwide, according to the New York Times. In its most recent report, HRW said the ALP managed to give legitimacy (and a source of income) to warlords, local strongmen, and illegal militias that had already enjoyed an unofficial “hands-off” approach under the former regime and its American partners:

Although the Afghan government outlined measures to prevent pre-existing militias from joining the ALP, a weak vetting process failed to achieve this, and the force has provided cover for armed groups already implicated in abuses…The result has been a pattern of impunity, abuse, and the consolidation of power and control of resources by a small elite group.

HRW has singled out some of the more infamous American allies, among them Abdul Hakim Shujoyi, who despite outstanding arrest warrants for the murder of more than a dozen people remained the de facto commander of the ALP in the central district of Khas Uruzgan as of June 2014. According to HRW,

Shujoyi was originally a member of the Afghan Security Guards (ASG) and directly worked with U.S. forces in Khas Uruzgan. U.S. Special Forces in the district reportedly insisted on his recruitment as the commander of the Afghan Local Police in Khas Uruzgan in early 2011, although he was not from the locality.

Shujoyi and his men are accused of raping, stealing, beating, setting fire to at least one person’s home, and killing 121 local men. In one incident in August 2012, his forces were accused of killing upwards of 17 people in one day, including the stoning of a 15-year-old boy.

An American spokesman denied any ties with Shujoyi at the time of the killings, and said U.S. Special Forces were not active in the area where they occurred. But despite the arrest warrant, Shujoyi still enjoys his freedom, and has been witnessed with U.S. forces since.

“Everyone has seen (Shujoyi) with the Americans,” one witness told HRW. In particular, according to the report, “he was frequently seen entering the international base in the district capital of Khas Uruzgan (known as Forward Operating Base [FOB] Anaconda).”

In 2013, Australian journalist Paul McGeough wrote that “a reputation as a fearless ‘Taliban hunter’ has earned enough U.S. military protection for (Shujoyi) to cast himself as a new warlord—even as the Americans were backing him into the leadership of a new grassroots community protection service, the Afghan Local Police or ALP.”

In other words, McGeough added, “Special Forces has emboldened and protected Shujoyi.”

Meanwhile, in Urgun province, Tajik “Commander Azizullah” made a neat shift to ALP chief after allegedly committing numerous crimes against civilians as a member of the Afghan Security Guards from 2008 to 2010, when the ASG was conducting combat operations with U.S. forces, according to HRW. It was then that he was first accused in a 2010 United Nations report of theft and beatings during search operations, detention and physical abuse of children, and arbitrary killing of civilians. This included one case in which he reportedly drove around with the dead bodies of three locals strapped to his vehicles, announcing they were terrorists, until they started to decompose.

When confronted with the charges in 2011, a NATO spokesman at the time told the The Independent there was “little information to substantiate what were essentially claims.”

Azizullah and the forces under his command joined the ALP in February 2011, according to the HRW report, “despite local objections that this would legitimize Azizullah.” Afterwards, “human rights abuses attributed to his forces continued.”

Likely the most infamous of the Afghan strongmen associated with the United States, Gen. Abdul Raziq is credited with both keeping the Taliban out of Kandahar, and running an elaborate network of ruthless security forces that made him wildly rich, and feared. Nothing, the report says, happens in the province without his knowing. Meanwhile, a UN report in 2013 accused Kandahar police of “disappearing” 81 people in just one year.

Overall, Raziq and his henchmen are accused of drug running, corruption, torture, and more. In 2011, journalist Matthieu Aikins uncovered a 2006 case in which Raziq and his men allegedly executed 16 rivals and dumped their bodies in the desert. Raziq dismissed the allegations as smears against his reputation. When asked, according to reports, U.S. officials have affected the same tone, preferring to refer to the charges as baseless rumors.

Raziq, 36, rose in power as police chief of his hometown of Spin Boldak after the 2001 invasion, but his support from former President Hamid Karzai and the U.S. catapulted him to rock-star status and head of security for Kandahar province, the epicenter of the Taliban insurgency.  Dubbed “Our Man in Kandahar” in Aikins’ Atlantic profile, Raziq received Petraeus (five times), Gen. Stanley McChrystal, and other top Americans at his home in Spin Boldak. His men were trained by none other than Blackwater, and armed to the teeth by U.S. forces, according to Aikins.

“Ah, yes, General David … a good man,” gushed General Raziq, as he recalled the visits from Petraeus in a November 2014 interview with the New York Times.

Just last year, the new ISAF commander Lt. Gen. John Anderson seemed to be carrying on the tradition, as he was captured in a photo with Raziq, his arm slung over the smiling Afghan in a seeming show of camaraderie.

TAC reached out to the Pentagon for this story and received a brief but timely response about the standards applied to the ALP. From spokesman Maj. Brad Avots:

The U.S. military funds the salaries of Afghan Local Police who are under the control of the Afghan Ministry of Interior …  In order to maintain international support and the trust and confidence of the Afghan people, (they) must demonstrate that they are effectively governed, respect the Rule of Law, and operate in accordance with the Afghan constitution and international obligations.

President Ghani is now trying to figure out a way to rein in “our man in Kandahar,” but it seems futile. Nasir Shansab, an Afghan-American author who spoke with TAC from Kabul, says he doesn’t have much confidence that Ghani, who has pledged to clean up corruption and bring war criminals to justice, will be successful.

He blames the U.S. for not encouraging better standards when they had the chance.

“They have simply looked the other way and never had the courage or willingness to tell the Afghan government there has to be rule of law. And I am very sad about that,” said Shansab.

“Right from the beginning the United States was here to win the war. They went to the warlords and armed them to wage the war. That pattern was established. And the warlords they all got rich and powerful because of the war and now they run the country the way they want to,” he said.

“That is the state of human rights in Afghanistan,” Shansab charged. “I hate to be so dark, but that is the truth of it.”

Ruttig says that while U.S. forces are withdrawing now, Petraeus’s legacy police are “shooting up like mushrooms.” They’ve taken to illegal tax collection to subsidize their ranks.

“There were a lot of formal precautions to take them under control,” Ruttig noted,  “but it was clear to everyone who set up these precautions they were not going be as strong as they were on paper.”

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.

The DEA Strands Veterans

U.S. Army
U.S. Army

When ret. Sgt. Ben King came home from Iraq he was “high on his service,” but like many other veterans coming home from active duty at the time, the adrenaline eventually wore off and the pain settled in.

Suddenly, King, who served on an Army tactical psychological operations team (PSYOPS), was feeling less like a “warrior” and more like an old man. He had serious joint aches and couldn’t sleep well at night. He started self-medicating with alcohol and sleeping pills. He was becoming an emotional wreck.

“When I got back,” he explained to TAC, “I came back high on my service and proud of my service and very much the warrior. But little by little, things started wearing me down.”

King, now 34, is among a significant percentage of recent combat veterans suffering from chronic pain (44 percent) and/or symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (20 percent or more). They range from people like King who suffered emotional stress and muscle strain from the rigors of everyday combat life, to the thousands of men and women who survived the kinds of head and limb injuries that would have left them dead in wars just a generation ago.

Veterans along this scale have, up to now, turned to pills for pain, anxiety, depression, and insomnia—mostly because they relied on them before they got out of the military. When they got home, VA doctors found prescription meds an effective way to plow through the glut of patients flooding into hospitals in unanticipated numbers across the country.

But unfortunately, as has been reported here at TAC and in many other outlets, overmedication has led to the rampant misuse and abuse of pills, dependency, and even death. As Aaron Glantz wrote in a piece about the VA for the Center for Investigative Reporting in 2013, “Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the agency charged with helping veterans recover from war instead masks their pain with potent drugs, feeding addictions and contributing to a fatal overdose rate among VA patients that is nearly double the national average.”

Because of reporting like Glantz’s, and numerous studies both inside and outside the military and VA health system, things are beginning to change. Whether that ends up being good or bad for veterans, will depend on whether there are other options for the injured and disabled.

According to a Washington Post report in February, new federal Drug Enforcement Agency rules instituted last summer have restricted access to the number of opiates like Oxycontin and Vicodin that anyone, including veterans, can get per month. In other words, doctors cannot fill more than a 30-day supply of painkillers to anyone, anymore. This does not apply to drugs for depression, anxiety or insomnia. The changes came not only in response to veterans’ issues, but nationwide addiction and overdose statistics, what Centers for Disease Control has called a “growing, deadly epidemic,” backed up with data indicating that it is “the worst drug epidemic U.S. history.”

For some vets who welcome alternative pain management and who believe pill popping has taken over their lives, this is a welcome development. But for many others, the Post points out, it is a troubling one. Vets tied to the VA system often drive great distances to get to a government pharmacy, and the wait times for appointments at some facilities can be weeks, even months.

“Suddenly, the VA treats people on pain meds like the new lepers,” said Stephanie Schroeder, the wife of veteran Craig Schroeder. She told the Post her husband was injured in a makeshift-bomb explosion while serving in Iraq. He suffers from traumatic brain injury, hearing loss, a herniatic disc, and pain from a broken foot. He has been on a “steady regimen” of opioids ever since. Now, he’s had to wait five months for an appointment with the VA and his prescriptions have simply run out.

“It feels like they told us for years to take these drugs, didn’t offer us any other ideas, and now we’re suddenly demonized, second-class citizens,” she said.

Dr. Charles Ruby, who retired from the Air Force and is now working as a clinical psychologist and veterans advocate in the greater Washington, D.C., area, is a proponent of therapy vs. medication for PTSD sufferers. He acknowledges, too, that pain meds, especially in combination with psychotropic drugs, can be lethal. However, he is skeptical of what he says are the federal government’s arbitrary constraints on painkillers.

“It’s probably a good idea to manage the doling out of [opioids], but who does the managing, in my view, should be the prescribers, the doctors,” he told TAC, “not the DEA stepping in. The government is going with this brutish shotgun approach without judging the consequences.”

Veterans’ blogs have been lighting up with responses to the new rules, which many are calling onerous and resulting in withdrawal symptoms among users. Among the complaints, that vets are all being labeled addicts no matter the circumstances.

“Best I can tell, VA could have handled the change better and treated veterans affected with more compassion while they suffered through withdrawals,” writes disabled veteran and advocate Benjamin Krause, who runs “A big problem with the change was that VA failed to warn and did not explain exactly why the change was going on. Veterans that pushed for the painkillers they previously received were labeled as ‘drug seeking.’”

Many of Krause’s commenters said they would like to try medical marijuana as an alternative, but did not trust that even if they did so in a pot-friendly state such as Colorado, their federal benefits wouldn’t be at risk.

The VA did not respond for calls for comment. A Center for Investigative Journalism report in 2014 found that for years, the VA did not follow its own rules regarding the distribution of highly addictive painkillers—including morphine. All the while, VA prescriptions of narcotics jumped 270 percent between 2001 and 2012.

Ben King said he recognizes the struggle and is now a strong proponent of alternative treatments. After he was introduced to yoga at a D.C.-area VA, he became convinced he could lose the pills and booze. He now runs “Armor Down,” which supports “mindful meditation” as a healing approach for veterans.

“It was really rough for me to start thinking about pulling away from these things that I was using, which I felt were very valuable, very helpful,” he told TAC. But they were just blunting his symptoms, and only for short periods of time. King now believes meditation and other holistic remedies can work to help veterans transition to civilian life and even manage pain.

The VA has come to this realization, too, and in recent years has poured money into alternatives, including a $21.7 million initiative late last year that would study the effectiveness of such therapies—including the use of morning light to treat back-pain and PTSD, as well as hypnotherapy, chiropractors, and meditation to reduce chronic pain.

According to a December article in Medical Care, authors A. Rani Elwy and Stephanie Taylor presented 14 new studies on CAM (complementary and alternative medicine) therapies, saying the research showed “promising steps to improve the health of veterans and active military personnel.” They also cited statistics showing that CAM programs were offered in some form at 90 percent of VA medical facilities at the time.

King said the greatest obstacle has always been the stigma of such programs for the military culture. “What (the DEA rules) represent for the VA is a kind of pulling off of the Band-Aid,” he said. “If they VA can find a way to articulate the means of these (alternative) practices, they can have the opportunity to frame the changes as beneficial to everyone. But it’s going to take some guts.”

Several members of Congress have been pushing for funding for alternatives, too. Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Calif., recently re-introduced her Expanding Care for Veterans Act, which would broaden research and access to CAM.

“(Complementary and alternative medicine) can help veterans manage chronic pain and reduce overuse of prescription drugs, which, as we now know, can lead to very serious health problems caused by addiction,” Brownley said in a statement to TAC.

However, in response to the new DEA restrictions, she warned, “The VA and DEA must also ensure that regulations aimed at preventing prescription drug abuse do so without compromising pain management.”

The reality is, not all sufferers can be expected to get through the day with Yoga or acupuncture. Their injuries are too serious. For vets who need to cut through the VA wait times or get to a pharmacy closer to home, the Veterans’ Affairs Choice Card program would allow them access private clinics. But so far, according to a recent VA report, only 27,000 out of the nine million eligible vets have bothered to use it.

One issue, according to the Washington Post, is that veterans have to wait months to be reimbursed by the VA for private care. Again, bureaucracy gets in the way.

Meanwhile, veterans feel labeled and abused, as though they are paying for others’ mistakes.  “Their policies regarding the prescription of opiate pain relievers are not only an atrocity against the disabled but are criminal in their application and enforcement,” raged one commenter.

“As usual, no one cares, and veterans who are suffering in agony remain voiceless and trapped in a government made nightmare.”

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.

Abu Ghraib Goes to Court

The world was so scandalized by the images of American soldiers forcing naked Iraqi detainees to pile into pyramids, leashing them and cornering them with dogs—not to mention the dead bodies flanked by men and women in camouflage giving the “thumbs up” sign—that the words “Abu Ghraib” will be forever associated with a sense of depravity and shame.

But nowhere to be seen in those photographs were the civilian contractors accused of setting the horror at the infamous Iraqi prison into motion, long before the scandal broke in 2004. These men managed to stay in the shadows, out of range of the camera, though subsequent military investigations confirm they were there all along.

These were the private contractors from CACI Inc., and Titan Corporation (later L-3 Communications), which provided interrogators and translators, respectively, to the prison. They were fingered as puppeteers of a kind in the Iraq War’s worst abuse scandal. According to testimony by lower-level guards from the 372nd Military Police Company who were convicted and did time for their role in the abuse, the guards were ordered by the private contractors working at the jail to “soften up” the prisoners, and were even given ideas of how to do it.

This was confirmed in the first official Army investigation by Maj. General Antonio Taguba, which examined the military police role, and another by Major General George Fay, which looked at the 205th Military Intelligence Brigade. Both criticized the contractors’ role on site.

The Taguba report names names, including CACI interrogator Steven “Big Steve” Stefanowiz, who became known as a ringleader, inspiring a newly installed Cpl. Charles Graner—yes, that Graner—to use a number of abusive techniques with the prisoners, including stripping them naked, forcing them to endure stress positions, and inducing sexual humiliation.

From Taguba:

[Stafanowiz] Allowed and/or instructed MPs, who were not trained in interrogation techniques, to facilitate interrogations by “setting conditions” which were neither authorized and in accordance with applicable regulations/policy. He clearly knew his instructions equated to physical abuse.

But neither Stefanowiz, nor any civilian interrogator, was ever reprimanded, as recommended in the report, much less charged with any crime. Nine out of the 11 individuals convicted were non-officers, while one additional officer received a non-judicial reprimand and was relieved of duty and another faced a series of charges but was later acquitted.

Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, who had been commanding officer at the prison (and highest ranking woman in the war), probably took the biggest hit for the team—she was demoted to colonel in 2005 for an unrelated charge. She believes the demotion was political retaliation for her public view that the abusive practices were led by contractors and approved higher up the governmental food chain. This familiar but never officially prosecuted charge was bolstered by revelations in 2005 that former Guantanamo Bay commander Geoffrey Miller had instituted the same techniques at Gitmo (including the use of dogs and forced nakedness) before he helped set up detention operations at Abu Ghraib at the beginning of the war.

Many of the degrading and abusive techniques at Abu Ghraib—the beating, stress positions, protracted isolation, sleep deprivation—also mirror some of the CIA’s post-9/11 interrogation practices revealed in the newly-released executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee “Torture Report.”

“It’s been documented that the authority emanated from the highest level of government,” said Jonathan Hafetz, an associate professor of law at Seton Hall University and former senior attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union.

“Torture was official U.S. policy—and it played out in a number of different ways, including through abuse by private contractors.” But so far, critics like Hafetz lament, contractors have avoided culpability for their direct involvement in prisoner abuses, as alleged in the official Army reports.

They have not escaped entirely scot-free, however. Scores of former detainees have retained American attorneys and have taken the private military companies to federal district court, accusing both CACI and Titan of, among other charges, cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment; torture; war crimes; assault and battery; sexual assault; intentional infliction of emotional distress; and aiding the military handlers in all of these crimes.

In 2013, Titan Corporation settled with 70 Iraqis for $5 million. CACI, however, which made billions in the war, has been steadfast in maintaining its innocence and has not offered to settle. They have fought various lawsuits all the way. Former CEO and recognized face of CACI, J. Phillip “Jack” London, wrote a book about it, called Our Good Name: A Company’s Fight to Defend Its Honor and Get the Truth Told About Abu Ghraib, in 2008. 

A judge even ordered, upon CACI’s request, that the impoverished Iraqis suing the company in Al Shimari v. CACI pay the multibillion-dollar company’s legal fees—nearly $14,000—when the district court threw the case out in 2013.

In that decision, the court said it didn’t have the jurisdiction under the Alien Tort Act (ATS) to review the case, citing Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, which held that the ATS only applies to conduct taking place in the U.S or on the high seas.

Forcing the Iraqis to pay CACI’s fees was only one indignity inflicted upon the abused. The court insisted that at least three Iraqis had to be in court for the case to proceed, but their attorney Baher Azmy of the Center for Constitutional Rights said at the time, “There is some inexplicable block by some agency in the U.S. government that’s preventing them from coming here.”

But now the tide has seemingly turned. The Iraqis got a boost last summer when the Fourth District Court of Appeals found that the Virginia District Court erred when it tossed out the case, and that Kiobel could not be so narrowly applied in Shimari, remanding the case back to Virginia.

On Feb. 6 of this year, both sides gave oral arguments to Judge Gerald Bruce Lee in the federal district court in Alexandria. CACI is now arguing that the “political question doctrine” immunizes them from suit, because the court is barred from second-guessing military command decisions in wartime. They also say that the military is immune from such lawsuits, so as agents operating strictly under the military chain of command, the private military contractor is exempt as well. According to this November filing by CACI’s lawyers, the military had controlled “all aspects of interrogations” at the prison and exercised “total control” over the CACI interrogators.


CACI isn’t the first contractor to use these arguments and surely won’t be the last. In fact, numerous lawsuits by not only foreign plaintiffs, but also American soldiers who feel they were harmed by private contractors in the warzone, are making their way through the system. Decisions in any one of them could have an impact on the others.


For example, just last month the Supreme Court declined a request by KBR Inc. and former parent company Halliburton to review two lawsuits against the private contractor relating to its work in Iraq. One is a class action suit by hundreds of veterans who say they were made sick by the burn pits under the purview of KBR, which had a waste management contract with the U.S. The other is a suit by the family of a soldier who was electrocuted in a base shower built by a KBR subcontractor in Iraq.

KBR, which has denied wrongdoing in both cases, has said it should be shielded with same immunity from lawsuits as the military, and is also protected under the same “political question doctrine” as CACI is using in the Abu Ghraib case.

While the District Court in each case agreed with KBR and granted dismissals, they were both overturned by the Circuit Court of Appeals. By refusing to get involved, the Supreme Court effectively sent the cases back to the District Courts, where the plaintiffs hope to get a trial.

“You cannot look at these cases in a vacuum,” says Steve Vladeck, a law professor at American University who has written extensively on contractor liability issues, including the political question doctrine and other defenses, at the Lawfare blog.  “In all of these cases where you have private military contractors being sued in court for conduct in Iraq and Afghanistan they have invoked the same battery of defenses.”

The contractor lawsuits are taking place in a shifting gray area in which there is little solid precedent, but tiny convenient legal shelters into which companies are trying to hide, hoping the suits will go away. Will the political question doctrine and immunity argument be the sanctuaries they are looking for? Observers say there is no hard and fast litmus test, and like everything with war contractors, new cases seem everywhere, ready to set a standard.

Meanwhile, Congress has not stepped in to clarify the law as it applies to contractors in war, even as the U.S. government has outsourced more of today’s military operations to civilians than it has in any other conflict in its history. The question about what to do when those hired by the government are accused of abuse and negligence is something the Supreme Court may have to deal with more assertively, sooner or later.

As for the legacy of Abu Ghraib, the former detainees want their day in court, and for the time being, they are getting their wish.

“I think in general, the government’s record in prosecuting torture and other misconduct in Iraq and elsewhere has been extremely disappointing,” Hafetz tells TAC. “But contractors should remain liable, and I think that’s what the courts are suggesting here. They should be held to account.”

Calls to CACI and its attorneys were not returned, nor were calls to the Center for Constitutional Rights, which is representing the plaintiffs in Shimari v. CACI.

A Blackwater World Order

After more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, America’s most profound legacy could be that it set the world order back to the Middle Ages.

While this is a slight exaggeration, a recent examination by Sean McFate, a former Army paratrooper who later served in Africa working for Dyncorp International and is now an associate professor at the National Defense University, suggests that the Pentagon’s dependence on contractors to help wage its wars has unleashed a new era of warfare in which a multitude of freshly founded private military companies are meeting the demand of an exploding global market for conflict.

“Now that the United States has opened the Pandora’s Box of mercenarianism,” McFate writes in The Modern Mercenary: Private Armies and What they Mean for World Order, “private warriors of all stripes are coming out of the shadows to engage in for-profit warfare.”

It is a menacing thought. McFate said this coincides with what he and others have called a current shift from global dominance by nation-state power to a “polycentric” environment in which state authority competes with transnational corporations, global governing bodies, non-governmental organizations (NGO’s), regional and ethnic interests, and terror organizations in the chess game of international relations. New access to professional private arms, McFate further argues, has cut into the traditional states’ monopoly on force, and hastened the dawn of this new era.

McFate calls it neomedievalism, the “non-state-centric and multipolar world order characterized by overlapping authorities and allegiances.” States will not disappear, “but they will matter less than they did a century ago.” He compares this coming environment to the order that prevailed in Europe before the domination of nation-states with their requisite standing armies.

In this period, before the Peace of Westphalia of 1648 ended decades of war and established for the first time territorially defined sovereign states, political authority in Europe was split among competing power brokers that rendered the monarchs equal players, if not weaker ones. The Holy Roman Emperor, the papacy, bishoprics, city-states, dukedoms, principalities, chivalric orders–all fought for their piece with hired free companies, or mercenary enterprises of knights-turned profiteers.

As progenitors of today’s private military companies (PMCs), free companies were “organized as legal corporations, selling their services to the highest or most powerful bidder for profit,” McFate writes. Their ranks “swelled with men from every corner of Europe” and beyond, going where the fighting was until it wasn’t clear whether these private armies were simply meeting the demand or creating it.

In an interview with TAC, McFate said the parallels between that period in history and today’s global proliferation of PMCs cannot be ignored. He traces their modern origins to the post-Cold War embrace of privatization in both Washington and London, both pioneers in military outsourcing, which began in earnest in the 1980s.

By the time the U.S. decided to invade Iraq and stay there in 2003, its smaller peacetime military force structure could not withstand the burden. The Pentagon increasingly relied on contractors to support and wage the war.

“Policy makers, when they started the war in Iraq, they didn’t think it would last beyond a few weeks. They had three terrible choices – they could withdraw prematurely, they could institute a Vietnam-era draft … or they could contract out. So they chose to contract it out,” McFate said. “That is why you have it now and why it is not regulated.”

The U.S. used contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan more than it had in any war in its history: in 2010 there were more contractors deployed to war zones (207,000) than U.S. servicemembers (175,000). In World War II, contractors only made up 10 percent of the military workforce, according to McFate.

From 1999 to 2008, at the peak of the wars, Pentagon spending on outsourcing alone increased from $165 billion to $466 billion a year. Attempts at oversight have been pathetic, as documented by the government’s own inspectors general time and again. Success at regulating or imposing codes of conduct on contractors has proven elusive, too. The industry remains as opaque as it has been unassailable where it really counts—the pocketbook.

“The industry is here to stay; it’s not going anywhere,” said McFate a former employee of Dyncorp, which cut its teeth in Bosnia. Dyncorp thrived as one of Washington’s primary contractors for both security and reconstruction in Afghanistan and Iraq despite intermittent accusations of overbilling and underperformance on the job.

Perhaps the most infamous of all contractors was Blackwater, which deflected charges of fraud, violence against civilians and murder for years before it was forced to “rebrand.” Four of its former guards were convicted of murder in October, however, in connection with the massacre of 17 Iraqis in Nisour Square in 2007.

Blackwater’s founder Erik Prince has dipped and dodged his way through several incarnations of his company (no longer “Blackwater,” it was renamed “Xe” and is now “Academi”), and has been successful at running a number of other so-called shell companies and international security operations inside and outside of the U.S. government trough, including anti-piracy enterprises in North Africa.

In his post-American days (Prince left the U.S. for Abu Dhabi in 2010 amid a series of federal charges and lawsuits dogging Blackwater), Prince perched himself “at the top of the management chain” at Saracen International, a security group made up of hard-core mercenary veterans hired in 2009 to train indigenous forces in Puntland, Somalia, and to serve as a security detail for the embattled president of the fragile central government in Mogadishu.

Saracen was officially kicked out of Somalia in 2011 after accusations were made that it was violating the country’s arms embargo. According to Jeremy Scahill’s seminal “Dirty Wars”, however, by 2013 it was not clear that Saracen had ever left, and it was likely still operating in Somalia at the time with a handful of other international PMCs, including Dyncorp.

This is the world that Prince has both made and has thrived in. According to McFate, “‘irregular’ warfare is more regular than the ‘regular’ warfare,” as the number of internal conflicts have tripled while interstate wars have dwindled in number since a peak in 1965. As a result, PMCs have been used increasingly over the last 15 years by countries, NGOs, and corporations alike to protect ships on the high seas and oil fields in the deserts, to secure humanitarian missions, to raise armies against insurgencies, and to serve as security details at embassies, military bases, and palaces across the Middle East and beyond.

On the darker side, many of the multinationals once on the U.S. dole as PMCs in places like Iraq have since started their own enterprises and taken their skills to clients no matter the mission. They are hard to track, and impossible to rein in.

For example, before Libyan dictator Muammar Gadhafi was killed, he hired mercenaries from across Africa, “to brutally suppress the popular revolt against him,” McFate points out. Likewise, papers reported in 2011 that one of Prince’s companies, Reflex Responses, was hired to raise a force of several hundred guards for the emir of Abu Dhabi, to “assist the UAE government with intelligence gathering, security, counterterrorism and suppression of any revolts.”

By no means has the U.S. stopped using PMCs—they are protecting diplomats in Afghanistan and Iraq, training foreign militaries, and conducting intelligence. At this point they are more agile and better equipped to do this work overseas than even their military paymasters, McFate argues, and their use prevents the public angst—and scrutiny—that accompanies putting American soldiers into harms way.

“The argument about private militaries being here to stay – that is the truth or unfortunate truth depending on your position,” said Peter Singer, senior fellow for the Future War project at the New America Foundation and author of Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry.

“For those who thought this would all be over with the end of Iraq 2.0 or Obama’s presidential victory, the facts just don’t bear that out,” he told TAC in an interview. Singer agrees with McFate’s assessments in Modern Mercenary, which he said
“mixes the analytic and academic side with his own personal experiences working for one of the firms; that combination is rare in this space.”

McFate details for the first time in public how he was hired by Dyncorp on behalf of a secret U.S. contract to help prevent a group of Hutu rebels, the Forces Nationales de Liberation (FNL), from sparking another genocide of the Tutsis during the ongoing civil war in Burundi. McFate was tasked at one point with guarding the president of Burundi from impending assassination. The president remained safe, and the civil war was brought to an end by 2005.

McFate said he wrote about this, and Dyncorp’s training of the Liberian army in 2011, to show in part that PMCs can be used to positive ends. But he is not naïve. He is clear about where they can fail, invite mission creep, or seize power for clients through violence. By their very nature, PMCs profit from conflict and are always at risk of creating and expanding it for their own benefit. McFate cites numerous examples throughout history in which mercenaries have played both sides, only to come out with full pockets.

In addition, private armies live by no rules of war or international conventions; here, Erik Prince is the best example. PMCs can hide in countries with the lowest standards and norms. They have access to a global arms trade and the latest military technology, including drones. They are a risk to civilian populations, and their operations are never transparent. “You can FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) the CIA, you can’t FOIA this industry,” said McFate.

So what to do? McFate suggests that banning PMCs or trying to regulate them into submission won’t work because it would only drive them underground and into the realm of rogues. He suggests letting the market work to “incentivize desirable practices by making them profitable” might be the best course. He notes, however, that when the U.S. military had “market power” and was in the best position to set price and practices at the beginning of its wars, it “failed to do so.”

Whether the cons of private contracting outweigh the pros is a debate McFate chooses not engage, and his background as both soldier and contractor figure heavily in the tenor of his book. “I leave it deliberately up to the reader,” he said. “The book is not an argument; it’s more about exploration. There is a big global trend happening right under our feet. I think we are in the precipice of a big decision.” That decision is how to deal with the privatization of war effectively, if at all.

It will not be easy. U.S. agencies knowingly hired companies with spotty records. They used private contractors for controversial secret operations, including the detainee interrogations at Abu Ghraib, and a covert CIA assassination program involving Blackwater. It will take a lot more trust in Washington to believe that “best practices” in this industry can genuinely come from government itself.

“In an idealized world the companies with the best practices and best performance records would end up with all the contracts, and the bad actors would be eliminated from the field,” said Singer. “That hasn’t happened in regular business, much less when you cross regular business with what you call politics.”

Or war. Get your seat belt on, because if McFate is right, it is “back to the future,” and any choice we might have had in the matter is long gone.

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.

David Petraeus’s Double Standard

When CIA officer John Kiriakou was convicted of revealing the name of an agent allegedly involved in the torture of a prisoner, then-CIA director David Petraeus heralded the court’s decision as “an important victory for our Agency, for our Intelligence Community, and for our country.”

“Oaths do matter, and there are indeed consequences for those who believe they are above the laws that protect our fellow officers and enable American intelligence agencies to operate with the requisite degree of secrecy,” he said in a statement on Oct. 23, 2012.

Less than a month later it would be revealed that former general Petraeus had broken his own oath, to his wife Holly, admitting to an affair with a woman who had once been his subordinate in the Army. In the course of the investigation that exposed the affair with Paula Broadwell—who was also his biographer—the FBI found he might have broken another oath, to the CIA (the affair supposedly began after he began his directorship there). Investigators suspected that the celebrated retired general had given her access to classified information that she was not authorized to have.

At the time, President Obama assured there was no indication that Petraeus passed along material “that in any way would have had a negative impact on our national security.”

This month, however, sources inside the Justice Department suddenly leaked that they have enough evidence to recommend felony charges against Petraeus for providing classified information to Broadwell. The New York Times, in breaking the news, suggested that investigators were frustrated that higher-ups had been dragging their feet on the case, that the man once called “King David,” was receiving “special treatment at a time Mr. [Attorney General Eric] Holder has led a crackdown on government officials who reveal secrets to journalists.”

For his part, Petraeus has insisted all along that he did not pass along classified material to his former mistress, and according to the Times, is uninterested in making any plea “that would spare him an embarrassing trial.”

Reaction has been swift and predictable. Official Washington and the elite media have rushed to Petraeus’s defense, rebuking the unnamed sources inside the Justice Department as overzealous and vindictive and possibly having ulterior motives for dragging the beloved “four star” through the mud.

“No American deserves such callous treatment, let alone one of America’s finest military leaders whose selfless service and sacrifice have inspired young Americans in uniform and likely saved many of their lives,” Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said in a joint statement.

Calling him “the four star general of our generation” and “a very brilliant man,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee who once demanded no quarter for Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning and Edward Snowden—whistleblowers both—appeared to suggest a man’s personal appeal and status qualify as mitigating factors in a potential felony prosecution.

“This man has suffered enough in my view,” Feinstein told CNN on Jan. 11. “It’s done, it’s over. He’s retired. He’s lost his job,” Feinstein said. “I mean, how much does the government want?”

The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald was aghast when he heard the audio of her full remarks during an interview on Democracy Now on Jan. 12, calling it, “actually one of the most disgusting remarks you’ll ever hear.”

Now, what’s so amazing about that is that, first of all, the United States imprisons more of its citizens than any other country in the world for trivial transgressions. You would never hear Dianne Feinstein or any of those people in Washington saying about ordinary people, ‘Oh, they’ve suffered enough. They’ve lost their jobs. They’ve been taken away from their family. Let’s free them from prison.

“Maybe I’m wrong, but as I seem to remember from middle school government class, lady justice is supposed to wear a blindfold,” said Lt. Col. Daniel Davis, in a recent email exchange with TAC. He continued:

If the FBI has sufficient evidence of wrongdoing, then it ought to present those findings to a court for the consideration of indictment.  If they do not have sufficient evidence, the case needs to be closed and the suspicions related to Mr. Petraeus removed. But the stature of Mr. Petraeus, his past accomplishments, or what he may have suffered owing to self-inflicted misbehavior he may have committed should bear no weight whatsoever in the decision.

It is no secret that since leaving the CIA in a cloud of shame, Petraeus has nonetheless enjoyed a lucrative post-career, beginning with a $220,000 a year pension paid for by the U.S. taxpayer. He is also teaching at CUNY (he was forced to give up the six figure salary there after students and faculty protested), and the University of Southern California. He has a perch at Harvard, and was hired in 2013 by Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, the private equity giant best known for “large debt-fueled corporate takeovers.”

While Broadwell was stripped of her security clearances, Petraeus reportedly retains his. Hardly an outcast, he has consulted with the White House on current troubles in Iraq—a war he was unable to fully win as head of U.S. Central Command, despite a barrage of accolades testifying to the contrary.

Meanwhile, Kiriakou has been in a federal prison with violent offenders for cellmates for more than two years. His wife Heather, who was pushed out of her job as a top CIA analyst three years ago—before John was even convicted—is struggling to pay the mortgage on their home while raising three young children alone. When he finally gets out in early February, he will be under house arrest until May, with little opportunity to get his family out of the enormous debt they have accumulated over the past several years since he was indicted.

Some would say that is “suffering.” But unlike the relative quiet it kept about Kiriakou’s humiliations when they were happening, the Beltway hive is already fighting—and seemingly winning—Petraeus’s battle for public opinion. If there was any doubt that the man who sold counterinsurgency (COIN) and two massively expensive (and failed) military surges to Washington is the Don Draper of the military age, one need only see how, with seemingly little effort, Petraeus is already being spun as a victim of the Obama administration’s runaway war on leaks, with the political establishment, media, and even the conservative grassroots closing ranks around him.

For his debut column at Politico last week, veteran newsman Jack Shafer penned “In Defense of David Petraeus,” which takes the Obama administration to task for over-classification and its crackdown on leakers. In defense of Shafer, he has been writing about these issues for some time and has nominally defended Edward Snowden. But he seems to compare Petraeus’s transgressions to writing bad checks and was never so breathless when talking about Kiriakou.

Neoconservative writer Eli Lake, who recently went over to Bloomberg News, also takes aim at the Obama administration in his Jan. 10 analysis, “Petraeus Caught in Obama’s War on Leaks.”

At first, Lake hints at the double standard, noting that high-level security-state offenders, if indeed that is what Petraeus is, “are almost never punished as harshly as low- and mid-level analysts,” using as an example Thomas Drake, a former NSA executive who lost his security clearance and his career, and who is now working at a Washington D.C.-area Apple Store following an aborted prosecution by the government in 2011.

Drake, a whistleblower who sacrificed his livelihood to bring attention to the unconstitutionality of the NSA’s post-9/11 data collection, has suffered, and with little or no public sympathy. The government wanted to prosecute him under the Espionage Act, thinking he had leaked information about President Bush’s warrantless surveillance program, but it couldn’t make the case. He lost everything anyway.

Lake acknowledges that, “admittedly, Petraeus played a supporting role in the administration crackdown” on leakers by taking agency credit for Kiriakou’s demise. But that is as far as Lake is willing to go. He minimizes allegations that Petraeus engaged in more than just pillow talk with his former mistress:

when Broadwell—a graduate of West Point—was writing her first biography of him, she was given access to top secret information covering the period in which Petraeus commanded allied forces in Afghanistan. This arrangement is common in Washington for established authors. Sources for Bob Woodward, whose books often disclose classified information that is provided to him through semi-official leaks, are not investigated for betraying state secrets.

Meanwhile, Petraeus has his right flank covered, too. The conservative grassroots believe he’s being blackmailed by the Obama administration over what he knows about the 2012 attacks on the American mission in Benghazi. They also sense this is a ploy to keep Petraeus from running for the White House in 2016. In the wake of the Times’ report on possible charges against Petraeus, Judge Andrew Napolitano took to the Fox News airwaves to rake Obama over the coals:

David Petraeus was the head of the CIA at the time of Benghazi … David Patraeus was mentioned as a vice presidential candidate. You can’t ethically or lawfully use the threat of a prosecution for political purposes but I am not naïve—it has happened before and it will happen again.

As national-security journalist Kevin Gosztola tells TAC, there is every reason to criticize the administration for its proliferating leak prosecutions and its zeal for using the Espionage Act to punish truth-tellers and whistleblowers. But all the evidence (that we know of) in the Petraeus case suggests that an “oath” was broken in order to sell a book, for the benefit of what turned out to be a bloated hagiography about a general who for years seemed more intent on preserving appearances and managing politics than actually telling the truth about America’s wars. Gosztola is not ready to make Petreaus a martyr to the cause.

Gosztola, who has been one of Kiriakou’s few links to the outside world writes: 

Petraeus should be prosecuted to send a message that leaks for personal gain are wrong. And, when elites feel disgusted or scoff at Petraeus’ prosecution [because they like to fawn over him], they can join the efforts of whistleblower advocates to end the use of the Espionage Act in leak prosecutions. They can help deal with the issue of rampant over-classification and push for changes in how the government goes about punishing people to “protect” the sanctity of American secrets.

The potential indictment of Petraeus raises a number of questions. While critics loathe him for his politicization, if not expansion, of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, they resent, perhaps more, the power of the state to use government secrecy and the threat of prosecution to silence dissent and quash efforts at open information. They look at unpunished leaking that benefits the state and chafe at the inequities.

That leaves Petraeus’s detractors, who would normally be thrilled at the idea of his comeuppance, in the awkward position of having to defend the general against the government. Or not.

“The problem is the rank hypocrisy,” said Tom Drake, who of all people might want to see someone like Petreaus in the hot seat, “and the use of the Espionage Act to chill anybody that [the] powers-that-be deem necessary to quell with respect to source information.”

“It is the power of the surveillance state that threatens all of our individual privacy, movement, association, and beyond—including Petraeus.”

Drake is a stalwart of the civil-libertarian cause, but it will be interesting to see how many Johnny-come-latelies suddenly take up this banner to defend Petraeus. Because of this deft spin, and for political reasons we cannot even begin to disentangle, he can’t seem to lose—the Teflon general.

“No,” said one military source who has known Petraeus since West Point, “nothing will stick to Petraeus.”

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.

Bureaucrats With Berettas

terrordome vilsack agriculture tank press conference

It’s a morning Kenneth Wright will never forget: 15 armed agents break in his front door and grab him by the neck, still in the boxer shorts he slept in. For six hours, a handcuffed Wright sat in a cruiser parked outside with his three children, ages 3, 7, and 11, while agents searched his house.

“They put me in handcuffs in that hot patrol car for six hours, traumatizing my kids,” the Stockton, Calif., resident told a local news outlet at the time.

Drugs? Weapons? Domestic violence? No. As Wright later found out, his gun-toting visitors were from the Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General (OIG). What the neighbors mistook as a S.W.A.T. team raid was really the execution of a search warrant in a student loan fraud case involving Wright’s wife, who wasn’t even there at the time.

“They busted down my door for this,” he exclaimed, “it wasn’t even me.”

The Department of Education took a drubbing from conservative and libertarian media but was unrepentant in its explanation. It offered no information on what the search warrant was for, other than to say that the OIG got it signed by a federal judge, and that the OIG routinely executes warrants for bribery, embezzlement, fraud, “and other criminal activity.” The department also said it “assesses” the danger of each search based on “a number of factors” before bringing the guns, like the whether the “persons” known to be at the house have a criminal or violent history.

Wright had no previous record, according to the above-mentioned report.

It might come as a surprise to most Americans, but the DOE considers its inspector general’s office to be its “law enforcement” arm and has outfitted it as such. In 2010, the department purchased 27 Remington Brand Model 870 police 12-gauge shotguns to replace its old firearms. “OIG operates with full law enforcement authority,” the department said after the Stockton incident.

And it was right. After the 9/11 attacks, the Homeland Security Act of 2002 gave inspector generals’ offices across the federal spectrum statutory authority to build up such law enforcement capabilities—including the right to carry weapons and arrest people.

Not surprisingly, as the nation debates the militarization of local and state police in the wake of several high-profile use of force cases, the proliferation of the law enforcement culture within the federal bureaucracy has largely gone unnoticed. The fact is, agencies whose prime directive is to audit and investigate regulatory transgressions like waste, fraud and abuse, are arming up with rifles and submachine guns—in essence, getting ready for battle.

“Not only is it overkill, but having these highly-armed units within dozens of agencies is duplicative, costly, heavy handed, dangerous and destroys any sense of trust between citizens and the federal government,” declared Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, in a statement to TAC. He plans to re-introduce language he sponsored in the last session that would repeal the authority given to the OIGs in 2002 and prohibit any federal agency outside “those traditionally tasked with enforcing federal law,” like the FBI and federal marshals, to get their hands on machine guns, grenades, and other military weapons.

In May last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) OIG put a bid out for 85 submachine guns (original solicitation here), specifically “.40 Cal. (Smith & Wesson), ambidextrous safety, semi-automatic or 2 shot burst trigger group,” outfitted with “Tritium night sights for front and rear, rails for attachment of flashlight (front under fore grip), scope (top rear) and stock-collapsible or folding, magazine.”

In September, a contract went out to Heckler & Koch Defense Inc., a weapons outfit in Northern Virginia, for $126, 586 worth of “weapons” for the OIG with no additional detail available. On the Heckler & Koch website, the gun closest to the solicitation is the MP5/40 Smith & Wesson.

Broiled by bad press after news of the solicitation and subsequent contract to Heckler & Koch, the USDA OIG responded with a five-page backgrounder—and justification—in October. “OIG’s investigations handles, on average, over 800 criminal investigations each year, some of which place OIG agents in potentially life-threatening situations,” it read.

The USDA said its statutory authority dates back to the Agriculture and Food Act of 1981 which gives the OIG authority to “make arrests, execute warrants for arrest, the search of premises or the seizure of evidence; and carry firearms.”

“Although most OID enforcement activities do not result in a use of force related incident, a seemingly routing action such as an interview, surveillance, or search-arrest warrants always has the potential to turn into a dangerous deadly situation,” the agency argued, going on to list 11 cases dating back to 1997 in which OIG investigators were directly or indirectly threatened, or involved massive amounts of drugs, weapons and criminal activity.

“Carrying situation-appropriate firearms and wearing ballistic vests, as necessary, can reduce the possibility that criminal suspects engage OIG special agents or other persons in physical violence or use of firearms,” the agency said. So what about the 85 sub-machine guns?

The agency says the guns are not “fully automatic” capable and would “be carried by OIG special agents only when a particular arrest or search warrant is deemed as high risk for danger.”

One might ask two things: 1) whether the “crime” and “danger” should dictate that traditional law enforcement like the FBI step in rather than the USDA’s OIG, and 2) Why the OIG, which is has traditionally looked inward to tackle fraud and abuse among USDA’s programs, is increasingly pursuing cockfighting rings and meth labs on farms.

It isn’t new, says Washington, D.C., attorney Patrick O’Donnell, whose work in part requires that he defend corporate clients and individuals in federal cases quite like the ones pursued by these OIGs every day. He says the complexity of federal law has pushed the boundaries of what violations of a regulation constitutes a “crime” and the OIGs have taken full advantage, pursuing the more “glamorous” path of arming up.

“Those who do this on the defense side don’t carry guns—I can’t carry a gun. I work in Washington D.C. where they are basically outlawed,” he tells TAC. “But I personally don’t feel the need to be armed.” He said aside from his government cases, he has defended clients in both white-collar crimes and in pro-bono criminal defense cases. “I’ve done a lot of them in rough neighborhoods with rough folks—I know what cases tend to be threatening or not threatening. So this strikes me as outlandish.”

O’Donnell and colleague Brita Strandberg recently penned an op-ed, “We Don’t Need a Pistol-Packing FCC Inspector General’s Office,” for the National Law Journal. The FCC’s OIG David L. Hunt has testified that his office would like to hire two criminal investigators, who would be armed, to carry out what he says are potentially dangerous investigations going on both inside the agency’s programs and outside fraud and theft cases, typically involving federal communications subsidies like the Video Relay Service or the Universal Service Fund and its four major programs.

Hunt has argued that the office lacks the tools to go after more of these crimes effectively and must wait for FBI/DOJ investigators, whose time is split, to do the job. “However, if we were to have the support of criminal investigators, we could develop a case to a further point on our own rather than consume DOJ and FBI resources,” he told a House subcommittee in September.

As for the guns, “OIG investigators will be able to securely enter premises to interview witnesses in situations where it may be unwise to do so without the assistance of the FBI,” Hunt said, pointing an ongoing cases where “we have been advised not to conduct interviews because of possible safety concerns.”

Hunt told TAC last week that, “the focus on the weaponry is frustrating; all we are saying is if you want to investigate crime you have to have people trained to do that.” He said his office oversees a nexus of $10 billion in taxpayer money and is their job to keep it from leaking out into the wrong hands—whether that is embezzlement on the inside or among potentially dangerous actors outside.

“We’re like internal affairs at a police department but with a huge program (Universal Service Fund)—a number of huge programs on the outside too,” Hunt tells TAC. “Congress did not just task us to look on the inside.”

O’Donnell says it’s no surprise that FCC and other OIGs “are turning outward in the world, and not inward to the agency. ” The former invites possible law enforcement action, is higher profile, and tends to get more press.

“There is nothing glamorous about taking a hard line on the FCC and critically pointing out its shortcomings,” he said, referring to internal audits required by the OIG. “But to say you helped bust someone ripping off a program and to say you helped prosecute them and you have to carry a gun as a federal agent—well that’s more glamorous.”

So far, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has been unwilling to green light Hunt’s request to add two criminal investigators to his 39-member staff. In a statement to TAC, Wheeler’s office said: 

Chairman Wheeler values and supports the independence of the Office of the Inspector General. The question of whether to permit armed employees in FCC buildings and field offices raises important security and employee safety questions. The Chairman has not made a final decision. The Office of the Chairman has discussed public safety concerns with the Inspector General and is consulting other agencies on their practices.

Critics like O’Donnell and others suggest that once these agencies have the ability to build law enforcement capabilities, the need to justify them inevitably grows, too, as does the proliferation of their trappings, including weapons and “tactical” gear (the USDA’s Animal and Plant Inspection service paid $10,000 for a sniper rifle in 2010, for example)—not unlike the militarization of local and state police departments everywhere in the nation today.

“We are already far down this road,” he said. “There is no shortage of law enforcement in America. Quite the opposite.”

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.

Afghanistan’s Still-Broken Government

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with Afghan presidential candidates Abdullah Abdullah (left) and Ashraf Ghani (right) on August 8, 2014. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with Afghan presidential candidates Abdullah Abdullah (left) and Ashraf Ghani (right) on August 8, 2014. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]

Newly elected Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, a technocrat with broad Western support who promised to bring his troubled country into the 21st century, has something in his government he hadn’t counted on: a shadow.

Thanks to a power-sharing agreement that the United States helped to push on Ghani, the president has a prime minister, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, a former finance minister and top Northern Alliance official who had all but threatened civil war if he was not given a place at the head of the government along with Ghani. Abdullah got his wish, but longtime observers say the “sharing” may have created the conditions for a civil war anyway.

“I think forcing the two to share power is a recipe for disaster,” said Otilie English who worked on and off in Kabul throughout the decade after 9/11, mostly on government teaching contracts. Before 9/11 she did human rights lobbying, and worked to promote the cause of the Northern Alliance against the Taliban in Washington. She has no illusions that Afghanistan has turned a corner since.

“I really think the country is evolving back to conditions prior to the civil war in the 90’s in which Kabul was destroyed.”

A return to the 1990s would be the worst-case scenario, but it is just as likely that the central government will be a conflicting mess of tribalism, ethnic competition, and corruption—in other words, it will be no different than it is today. The first indication that things are going south are that it’s been a month since the so-called united government was formed, yet there is no government because the two sides cannot agree on who will be running the ministries.

“Power-sharing agreements can only succeed when there is political order, backed by internal security arrangement and an effective state-building mechanism,” said human rights activist Nemat Sadat.

“Unfortunately, in Afghanistan, with the escalation of attacks in Kabul and throughout Afghanistan occurring since the inauguration and the inability to decide new ministers who can create an effective state-building mechanism, and the U.S. and allied countries running for the exits, you have a power vacuum.”

Tony Cordesman, senior national security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), points out that on every measurable front, Afghanistan is descending into crisis. “They [the metrics] are truly dismal,” he said, from economic growth and poverty, to security and governance. CSIS has just issued two reports with reams of data to prove his point.

“Just remember—and this often gets lost—Afghanistan is a country that regardless of who is elected, would have truly major governance problems. It is one of the worst governed countries in the world.”

Afghanistan’s recent open election—the country’s first without Hamid Karzai, the U.S.-installed leader who was constitutionally mandated to step down after two terms—was supposed to help turn the governance problem around.

TAC wrote about the elections this past summer, when Ghani and Abdullah went into a run-off after all of the eight competing candidates failed to get 50 percent of the vote in the April elections. Abdullah led April’s voting with 44 percent, compared to Ghani’s 31 percent. By July’s election, however, things had turned ugly as it was announced that Ghani was leading Abdullah 56 percent to 43 percent.

In one respect, the shift in numbers was not surprising—in American terms, think of it like an eight-way race in which six candidates are Republicans and two are Democrat. One candidate from each party emerges from the first round, and then the Republican benefits by consolidating the others’ votes in the two-way run-off. Ghani and five other candidates were all ethnic Pashtuns, while Abdullah and is Tajik and Pashtun but hails from the Northern Alliance, which was a Tajik resistance movement.

Nonetheless, Abdullah would not accept the results, charging widespread fraud. When he made the same accusations four years before against Karzai, it turned out that he was right. But this time, the situation was more complicated, observers said, and any fraud like ballot stuffing could turn out to have been committed on both sides. Either way, Abdullah threatened to withdraw support from the government if audits were not done. “We would rather be torn into pieces than accept this fraud. We reject these results … and justice will prevail,” he told a crowd of restive supporters in July.

A deep audit of more than a million votes was initiated by the International Election Commission, and in September Ghani was declared the winner. But mysteriously, we do not know by how much—the final tallies were never released. Almost immediately, Ghani and Abdullah signed a power-sharing agreement, promoted by Secretary of State John Kerry, which gives Ghani the presidency but leaves both men essentially in charge, with Abdullah serving as CEO with all the duties of prime minister. (For a deeper dive into the details, see the Afghan Analysts Network’s take.)

“Abdullah stamped his feet, and blustered and basically threatened and that’s why our government gave in—Kerry should have never went near this because it’s not going to work,” said English.

Nevertheless, U.S. officials, like senior presidential advisor John Podesta, called the pact and the subsequent joint-signing of the security agreement keeping upwards of 10,000 American troops in the country, a “turning of the page” in regards to U.S.-Afghan relations.

According to Martine van Bijlert at AAN, “Ghani and Abdullah have, so far, taken great pains to present the image of a united leadership,” going to Brussels and London in December to convince the international community to continue aid and security partnerships, but the cracks are already showing. Several deadlines to fill the cabinet have already been missed. Meanwhile, the old Karzai cabinet was dismissed from duty in November.

The deal itself might be to blame, as it calls for a perfect split in the appointment of the 25 ministries, each man getting half, but is filled with ambiguities about how to arrive at that split. AAN’s Bijlert writes that while the two have agreed to split up the ministries, they are not yet fully agreed on who gets which posts to fill. And according to AAN, the exact terms of Abdullah’s authority were not made clear in the original agreement, creating another sticking point. As of Friday none of the ministers have been appointed, which leaves the most critical posts like interior, finance, and defense in limbo.

In a town in which these jobs have usually been doled out for patronage and become cash cows for officials’ friends and family, this is a tricky business. Ghani has promised to stop the era of patronage and move toward meritocracy, but that goal seems farther away now as Afghanistan slips into the abyss of poverty and insecurity.

As Sadat tells TAC: 

The main conundrum in this power-sharing agreement is that under the terms signed by Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah and brokered by the United States, it requires “parity” to deciding leadership positions in ministries relating to security and economy and that the two sides will be “equally represented at the leadership level.”

This restricts Ghani’s executive powers and his dream about establishing a “merit-based” mechanism (or meritocratic or meritocracy if you will), whereby appointment of officials are made based on who is the most qualified to lead that position.

English tells TAC that to make it even worse, the nepotism and patronage throughout the ministries is ethnic-based, with Tajiks filling some ministries, Pashtuns others. This is the way it has always been and complicates the way forward. “Abdullah will demand certain key ministries and Ghani won’t give them up, and all the ministries are ethnically divided—that’s just how it is done.”

David Isby, an Afghan expert and author of Afghanistan: Graveyard of Empires: A New History of the Borderland, adds that appointing ministries in the past has always been about favors and payback. Ghani has promised to tackle this corruption—most recently in his London speech—but therein lies the conundrum. “That means he is going to have to something about a system that is about mainly dividing the goodies rather than doing a job,” he tells TAC.

Isby says the central government is actually less important than setting the 34 provincial governments on a straight course, and to start that process the two new “co-leaders” had to go to their international donors with hat in hand first, even if it meant missing the deadlines for establishing the cabinet. “That’s where their money is, you know—they had to make that priority,” said Isby. However, he concedes that the continuing violence, including a series of suicide attacks in Kabul over the last month, combined with government uncertainty, “discourages investment.”

Bijlert takes that point one step further, suggesting the donor community is unsettled by the delay in the cabinet.

“The introduction of new faces ahead of the (donor) conference would have been a tangible sign of progress easily understood at home and in donor capitals. It would have been particularly welcome given the contentious and drawn-out election, the lingering uneasiness about whether a dual-headed government will actually work and the morphing of the ISAF mission into the new Mission Resolute Support,” she wrote, noting the new assistance role for the few international troops left behind.

Bijlert added: 

The inauguration of the new government initially led to a sense of optimism among many Afghans. This has been dampened as time passed, particularly with still no ministers appointed who could have started effecting the promised changes. What remains is a mix of hope and disappointment, as the new government, on the one hand, continues to present a sense of dynamism, albeit largely symbolically, and on the other hand, remains bogged down in its own complications.

CSIS’s Cordesman points out that the instability on all levels will indeed create a security vacuum for both the country and the region, given the strength of the Pakistani Taliban next door. He in part blames the American government for letting the corruption and the persistent problems in the Afghan military get so bad without coming to terms with them sooner and more openly.

The power-sharing agreement was just an attempt at a Band-Aid in order to keep all the powerbrokers happy, but the country is bleeding through. “And at this point,” he said, “no one can predict the outcome.”

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.

Civil Liberties Lose a Champion

Photo courtesy of U.S. Senate Photo Studios
Photo courtesy of U.S. Senate Photo Studios

The irony of Sen. Mark Udall’s stunning defeat to Republican Cory Gardner in this year’s midterm election is that he lost, in part, because of his association with a significantly unpopular president.

In reality, he was never a likely real stand-in for the president or the Democratic caricatures painted by the GOP. A western state mountaineer and self-described libertarian who supported concealed carry permits alongside a woman’s reproductive rights, this Colorado Democrat wasn’t your typical limousine liberal.

But come January he will be gone, leaving behind a canyon-sized void that civil liberties advocates say will be difficult to surmount.

“To be blunt, he’s leaving very big shoes to fill,” said Neema Singh Guliani, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, which has worked with Udall for over a decade. “When I think of his work over the last several years, he was really only joined by (Oregon Senator Ron) Wyden and a few others since the early days, asking the hard questions,” she added.

“He was one of the few who were willing to cross examine and take issue with any statement that was posited by the national security establishment – things they would prefer not to be questioned about,” said Tom Drake, a whistleblower and privacy activist who has plenty of experience battering the doors of Congress to force transparency on the government’s classified surveillance programs.

“It doesn’t take much opposition to get opposition – all you need is a check,” he said, noting that Democrats Udall and Wyden, who both serve on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, provided that “check” for years. “We are going to lose one of the key voices in the committee that is supposed to have oversight.”

Republicans saw Udall, 64, as an easy target for a Senate majority takeover in a midterm election that became more about President Barack Obama and his policies than anything else—and it worked. Taking up the challenge, Udall by pundits’ accounts, flubbed the campaign by focusing too heavily on whether Gardner opposed reproductive rights for women and not enough on other issues.

A cruel-fated end, his supporters say, to a career spent being the type of elected official most Americans say they want in poll after poll—someone who works for them, and not necessarily for party dominance or parochial allegiances. He may have had a “D” after his name, but particularly on the issue of constitutional rights and liberties, Udall was a champion of every American.

“Mark Udall has been a real leader on these issues, and he’s not someone who can be easily replaced,” his old compatriot Wyden told TAC in a statement.

Udall has not only been on the forefront of privacy issues, but his independent streak has extended to voting against the war in Iraq and against the 2012 Defense Authorization Act, which critics say would have allowed for the indefinite detention of Americans. Advocates now want him to read the classified CIA torture report, the release of which has been delayed by the White House and CIA, into the congressional record before he leaves office at the end of the month.

Airing the 6,000 page final report for the first time would be his boldest move yet. His office told TAC this week that the senator is considering “all options,” and is currently in talks with the White House to get the report released before it gets to that point. News late Thursday suggested a summary of the report might be released early next week.

Udall declined to be interviewed for this story, but e-mailed some of his thoughts about his work in the Senate. ”At the heart of freedom is the freedom to be left alone. That’s why I’ve been a steadfast advocate of Americans’ privacy rights and worked to rein in the National Security Agency’s overreach,” he said. “Our intelligence community should focus on combating terrorists, not collecting the private phone records of millions of law-abiding Americans when there is no compelling national security interest to do so.”

Udall served 10 years in the House before winning a six-year term in the Senate in 2008. He drew his first line in the sand by voting against the Patriot Act in October 2001. It overwhelmingly passed, but he was one of 62 Democrats and 66 members total in the House to vote against it. Anyone who was working in Washington in those emotionally charged weeks after 9/11 knows that was a bold stand to take.

“I don’t care about the politics, it’s bad policy,” he reportedly said to Democratic consultant Steve Welchert at the time. “Mark turned out to be right,” Welchert recalled later to The Denver Post. That was an understatement.

More recently, as a senator, he voted again against extending several provisions of the Patriot Act, chiding his fellow Democrats for a lack of debate. For years he and Wyden had been banging their heads against the wall to get federal law enforcement to disclose just how they were interpreting the laws. As members of the Intelligence Committee they know things most Americans don’t, and they expressed frustration that secret interpretations of the law had allowed the government to run roughshod over the constitution while calling it a matter of “national security” in order to keep it all secret.

“We believe most Americans would be stunned to learn the details of how these secret court opinions have interpreted section 215 of the Patriot Act,” Udall and Wyden wrote to Attorney General Eric Holder in March 2012 after the Justice Department sought the dismissal of two lawsuits by the ACLU and The New York Times. The suits endeavored to disclose how 215 (the provision that allows the feds who go after “any tangible thing” they say is related to a terrorism investigation without a warrant) was being used by law enforcement.

“As we see it there is a significant gap between what most Americans think the law allows and what the government secretly claims the law allows,” they wrote. “This is a problem because it is impossible to have an informed public debate about what the law should say when the public does not know what its government thinks the law says.”

The two senators—who are among the very few privy to the classified interpretations—went on to make some damning assertions, not only about over-classification, but they also suggested the government was misusing the “national security” card in order to obfuscate the truth. “We have grown increasingly skeptical about the actual value of the ‘intelligence collection operation’ …this has come as a surprise to both of us, as we were initially inclined the take the executive branch’s assertions about the importance of this ‘operation’ at face value.”

In the summer of 2013, Udall called for the Patriot Act to be “opened up” and reformed. This time, he didn’t just have his own evidence about government abuses gleaned from classified briefings, but the whole of Edward Snowden’s leaks from that June. He and Wyden found common cause with Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) to push for reforms at the National Security Agency, which we know now has been using FISA to dragnet millions of Americans’ personal data and phone records without warrant.

“It’s time to end the dragnet – and to affirm that we can keep our nation secure without trampling on and abandoning Americans’ constitutional rights,” Udall, Wyden, and Paul wrote in a June 2013 op-ed.

Jesselyn Radack is a federal whistleblower and attorney whose clients include Edward Snowden. Like Drake, she has emerged as one of Washington’s toughest privacy advocates. Radack told TAC that after the Snowden leaks rocked Capitol Hill, Udall went straight to work, “conducting aggressive oversight of the NSA’s surveillance programs,” she said. “At a time when the majority of the congressional intelligence committees are unable or unwilling to properly oversee the surveillance state, Senator Udall stands out as a member dedicated to informing the public and protecting civil liberties,” she added.

“He wasn’t just talking about the NSA only when it was cool to talk about the NSA,” added the ACLU’s Guliani. “He was talking about these issues for a long time and continues to talk about them.”

But Snowden gave Udall and Wyden a chance to grill people like Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and CIA Director John Brennan, with headline-grabbing and illuminating results. After a cross-examining from Wyden, Clapper told the Intelligence Committee that the NSA was not gathering millions of Americans’ phone records without warrant—contradicting to the evidence right in front of the committee. Clapper was forced to apologize.

Meanwhile, the senators have doggedly quizzed other administration officials about the NSA’s role in collecting massive amounts of data under Section 702 of the 2008 FISA Amendments Act (which Udall also opposed). This tool has allowed NSA to dragnet and keep massive amounts of data without warrant even if it’s useless to any investigation. Two previously secret programs—PRISM and Upstream—were revealed in the Snowden leaks.

The Washington Post reported in June that “ordinary Internet users” far outnumbered actual terrorism-related suspects among those swept up in these programs, and more than half of the tens of thousands of surveillance files reporters were able to analyze came from American citizens—not foreigners—ranging from their emails to photographs to academic transcripts and medical records.

Marcy Wheeler, a privacy policy expert and scribe behind the popular Empty Wheel blog, points out that Udall is also on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and from that perch was able to question Vice Admiral Mike Rogers, who was nominated (and confirmed) to head U.S. Cyber Command/NSA this year. In much the same fashion as Wyden did with Clapper, Udall asked Rogers to say whether the NSA was conducting warrantless surveillance on Americans through Section 702. Rogers declined to answer.

“SASC was the only venue to ask Admiral Mike Rogers any questions before he was confirmed. Udall tried to use Rogers’ confirmation to get him on the record on back door searches,” Wheeler recalled to TAC.

“I also think he’s good at finding places where the government isn’t meeting the spirit of the law,” she added, pointing to the growing concerns about NSA data collection under Executive Order 12333, which is also secret and warrantless. She said Udall used the February confirmation hearing for John Carlin to Assistant Attorney General for National Security to press his points, and to show just how transparent these agencies want to be with the people. Turns out—not much.

However, said Guliani, “I feel that we are much further along with the debate than we were before thanks in part to Senators Udall and Wyden.”

In July, Udall called for CIA head John Brennan to resign after the agency was forced to admit it spied on Senate Intelligence Committee staff computers while the CIA torture report was being pulled together. Brennan was forced to apologize.

Supporters hope Udall will read the torture report into the record if the White House continues to delay. Certainly, said Drake, it would be his last great stand as the independent senator.

“There’s been way too much cover-up and collusion and too much year after year of keeping critical matters of state from public view,” he said. “He is in a unique position to do this.”

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.

The Military-Industrial Candidate

Analysts were right to say that the Republican takeover of Congress bodes well for the war machine: already we see the levers of power slowly shifting in reverse, eager to get back to salad days of post-9/11 wartime spending.

But waiting in the wings, Hillary Clinton just may prove to be what the defense establishment has been waiting for, and more. Superior to all in money, name recognition, and influence, she is poised to compete aggressively for the Democratic nomination for president. She might just win the Oval Office. And by most measures she would be the most formidable hawk this country has seen in a generation.

“It is clear that she is behind the use of force in anything that has gone on in this cabinet. She is a Democratic hawk and that is her track record. That’s the flag she’s planted,” said Gordon Adams, a national security budget expert who was an associate director in President Bill Clinton’s Office of Management and Budget.

Karen Kwiatkowski, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who has spent her post-service days protesting the war policies in Iraq and Afghanistan, is more blunt. “Interventionism is a business and it has a constituency and she is tapping into it,” she tells TAC. “She is for the military industrial complex, and she is for the neoconservatives.”

Hillary, Inc.

The former secretary of state, senator, and first lady appeared to fire the first salvo (at least in her national security arsenal) in her next presidential bid last summer, when she gave an interview to Jeffrey Goldberg mostly on the launch of her new autobiography, Hard Choices. In the much-ballyhooed Atlantic piece, Clinton defends Israel from charges of disproportionate attacks in Gaza, takes a hard line on Iran in the nuclear talks, and suggests President Obama could have avoided the rise of ISIS by listening to her proposals for arming the anti-Assad rebels in Syria last year.

Not long after, Leon Panetta—who served as Bill Clinton’s chief of staff before he was Obama’s CIA director, then secretary of defense in 2011—released his own tell-all, Worthy Fights. While the book itself might be more nuanced in its criticism of Obama’s foreign policy choices, the promotional tour, which came at the height of the current Islamic State crisis and right before the midterm elections, had Panetta blaming Obama for not keeping 10,000 troops in Iraq, then, and not having “the will to fight” in Iraq and Syria, now.

Panetta’s flurry of press interviews, all of which make Obama look like a rube, feed the belief that all of Clinton’s actions are politically motivated. “The criticisms that (Panetta) is leveling at President Obama do not seem to be his own,” charged liberal MSNBC host Rachel Maddow, in October. She pointed out how, at the time, then-defense secretary Panetta “staunchly defended” Obama’s decision to withdraw all combat troops from Iraq in 2011. She continued:

“Now that he’s out and working for a global strategy firm that’s essentially the Hillary Clinton campaign in exile, now he’s flying the same exact anti-Obama flag that the hawkish Clinton wing of the party has been flying all year trying to position themselves for the next stage in their own political careers by stepping on President Obama’s neck.”

Maddow was describing Beacon Strategies—a firm launched by a collection of former Hillary Clintonistas, including longtime spokesman Phillipe Reines. When it opened shop in 2013, Defense News noted that it looked like these former aides were keeping their powder dry for another government run; in the meantime Beacon was “built on providing advice to companies, primarily defense contractors, focused on international defense business as well as cyber, although their first client was Bash’s former boss, Panetta.” Panetta has since joined the firm.

If Hillary Inc.’s first order of business was to define her worldview away from her former boss, it also seemed to take on some of that old Clinton triangulation magic—anticipating the usual trope that Democrats are too squishy on defense. And it seemed to work, for now. Panetta’s attacks on Obama were so welcomed by the right wing that Karl Rove called him a “patriot” on Fox News.

True Believer

Hillary’s prevailing record in Washington is as ideological as it is political. In the purest sense she endeavors at what writer Peter Beinart refers to as muscular liberalism, in the vein of Presidents Truman and Kennedy. Her intellectual coterie includes elite purveyors of “humanitarian interventionism” like former Clinton Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Anne Marie Slaughter.

In a September review of her friend Henry Kissinger’s latest book, aptly entitled, World Order, Clinton describes her own perception of America’s “global leadership.”

“America, at its best, is a problem-solving nation. And our continued commitment to renovating and defending the global order will determine whether we build a future of peace, progress and prosperity in which people everywhere have the opportunity to live up to their God-given potential,” she writes.

Her bond with the former Nixon national security advisor, who she boasts, “checked in with me regularly” during her time as President Obama’s secretary of state, reflects the paradoxes inherent in both their tenures. She says they both share “a belief in the indispensability of continued leadership in service of a just and liberal order,” yet Kissinger is best known for expanding the war in Vietnam. In the interest of global order he pushed for continued air strikes on Laos and helped initiate a secret bombing campaign in Cambodia without congressional approval, ultimately strengthening the genocidal trajectory of the Khmer Rouge.

All told, millions of civilians died as a result of the war in Indochina. Kissinger was feted for “ending” the conflict in Vietnam with the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize, for an agreement that in no way inhibited the North Vietnamese from overrunning the south as the last Americans scrambled to leave Saigon in 1975. Kissinger also supported the war in Iraq, and was a regular counselor/visitor at the Bush White House, too. Now, like his protégé Clinton, he says, “If I had known everything then that I know now, I probably would not have supported it.”

Hillary may have been protesting the Vietnam War while Kissinger was escalating it, but she has long since seen force as a way to promote democratic goals, beginning with the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1994 (when, of course, it politically suited, as the late Christopher Hitchens pointed out in 2008).

Networking to the Right

So when she became a New York senator in 2001, she chose to consult with the brass, including Gen. Jack Keane, who helped to draft the so-called surge in Iraq. She bonded with fellow Armed Services Committee member and chairman Sen. John McCain, who critics joke never saw a conflict he didn’t want to bomb his way out of. It was in the Senate that Clinton cemented her ties with the military, knowing full well that it helped her politically, too, given the lessons learned from her husband’s cool relationship with the Armed Forces more than a decade before.

Her new friends did her no good in 2008, however, when she faced Barack Obama in the Democratic primary for president. The mood in the country was decidedly antiwar, and her vote for Iraq came back to haunt her. As secretary of state, however, she did little to distance Foggy Bottom from the subordinate role it had been playing to the Pentagon in world affairs after 9/11, said Adams.

“She wanted to make sure she was never in a fight with [then-Defense Secretary] Bob Gates … One got the feeling from her she felt safest when the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense were at the hip,” he said.

Clinton talks a lot about non-kinetic “soft power,” but Gordon said he “watched very closely as the State Department tried to align itself with the DoD,” under Clinton.

“It concerned me because it leaned toward the hawkish side of her policy views,” said Adams, a firm believer that “there should be creative tension between both departments.”  Meanwhile, the Clintonites who had come to inhabit the Obama administration, like Slaughter, began coalescing behind “responsibility to protect” or “R2P,” in hopes of saving the future of humanitarian intervention from the clutches of American war fatigue.

On the surface it would appear that Clinton is expert at fusing her touchy-feely side with a seemingly instinctual desire to use the military to sustain and wield American “global leadership” to whatever ends. This approach can yield political paydirt, drawing in hawks from both sides of the spectrum. But to critics it smacks of “soft empire” and in that way, it’s no different than say, Robert Kagan’s neoconservatism—it’s all a matter of branding.

Military-Industrial Fundraising Machine

Which brings us back to the politics, which has been in Hillary’s blood since she was a high school “Goldwater Girl.”  She knows, ultimately, that her status in the national security establishment and credibility with the Pentagon brass is essential.

“You don’t get to be a serious person in Washington until you are considered pro-intervention,” said Mike Lofgren, who spent 30 years as a budget analyst and aide on Capitol Hill, specializing in defense. Plus, the “Clintons, they really like to hang out with rich people and there is a lot of money in the military industrial complex.”

Money, of course, is high on the list for a credible presidential run, and Clinton has been raising lots of it. Hollywood, which appears to hate war only when Republicans are waging it, is forming the left flank in her PAC operations. Meanwhile, Israeli billionaire friend Haim Saban (yes, that Saban) told the Washington Post that he will spend “whatever it takes” to get her elected.

So what does this all mean in a practical sense? First, if Saban and other hardliners get their way, Clinton will come down on Iran like a ton of bricks in the nuclear negotiations and light as a feather on Israel in respect to the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, especially given her comments to Goldberg over the summer.

Furthermore, if the dynamics in North Africa and the Middle East remain the same, electing Clinton could lead to an even greater military footprint overseas. The Armed Services, ever the wailing Cassandras, will likely get the appropriations they want with less commotion, a boon for the defense industry.

“Clinton understands that the only avenue of safety for a Democrat in the arena of national security is to throw money at the Pentagon,” said Adams, and “this is consistent with her worldview on national security. She sees military force as an essential tool and if you take that view, why wouldn’t you want to increase the military’s budget?”

More importantly, her support of the military allows her to project an image of leadership and toughness during the campaign, which Adams says is absolutely necessary for winning the White House.

“What this does is protect her right flank, it makes it very hard for anyone in the general election to accuse her of being soft on national security,” said Adams.

“And where did she learn that lesson? Her husband.”

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.

Revenge of the COIN Doctrine

Your table manners are a cryin’ shame. You’re playing with your food this ain’t some kind of game. Now if you starve to death you’ll just have yourself to blame. So eat it, just eat it. –Weird Al Yankovic

In his first book, counterinsurgency advocate Ret. (Lt. Col.) John Nagl told us how to Eat Soup with a Knife. It turned out that it really was easier to eat soup with a spoon, or frankly, not to eat it at all. Today, after two failed interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, Nagl has written a follow-up, but it has nothing to do with eating humble pie.

In Knife Fights, Nagl has abandoned the dining motif along with the format. The book is a memoir in which he tries to cast himself as both a inside player and a outside rebel, one who had to struggle to bring a new counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy to losing battlefields in Iraq in 2007, then Afghanistan in 2009.

Thus, the knife depicted on the cover of the book, which was released this month, is no table utensil, but a hunting knife. That might be fitting, considering the many ducks, blinds, and decoys he presents throughout. But like everything else Nagl has promoted over the years, it’s all just a bit difficult to swallow.

Simply put, Nagl, once called the “Johnny Appleseed of COIN,” uses his memoir to a) paper over the huge failures of counterinsurgency in both Iraq and Afghanistan by saying the best we can hope for now are “unsatisfying but not catastrophic outcomes”; b) to distance himself—and COIN—from defeat by blaming everything but the strategy for why it didn’t work as promised in the field; and c) burnish his own resume—which takes up much of the book—for a possible return to a Democratic administration in 2016.

This might sound cynical, even abrasive, but consider the stakes: the U.S. is currently engaged in another military intervention in Iraq, against an enemy that never went away even after COIN allegedly “won” the war there. When someone who not only promoted prolonging the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and publicly sold the snake oil that surged hundreds of thousands of troops into harms way is now attempting to rehabilitate himself suggests a return of at least 15,000 more troops to Iraq, is it not wise to examine the merits and timing of what Peter Mansoor hubristically calls, “a magnificent memoir from one of the most brilliant officers of his generation”?

Ret. Army Col. Gian Gentile, a long-time COIN critic who is singled out in Knife Fights, certainly thinks so. He tells TAC the book reads more like “a Hollywood director hoping to turn (his memoir) into a swashbuckling movie.”

“Nagl’s new book is not about research and scholarship,” he charges, but is actually “about proliferating a myth, constructed by him and other proponents of counterinsurgency, that COIN can work as long as stupid armies are transformed and saved from themselves by clever COIN doctrine and savior generals.”

COIN was supposed to create a safe space in Iraq for political reconciliation and democratic governance to grow. That is what Nagl and his “COINdinistas,” led by Gen. David Petraeus (who still plays the savior role in Knife Fights), said would be the measure of success for the 2007 troop surge.

By all objective metrics, that did not happen before Petraeus declared the surge a success in front of a beaming, COIN-bedazzled audience at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) in 2009. In hindsight, the only meaningful space created was for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who would rule Iraq for the next several years with an American-sanctioned whip hand.

This was accomplished not through so called “population centric warfare,” but through intensive capture/kill campaigns and immense American firepower deployed against both Maliki’s Sunni enemies and his Shia rivals in Baghdad during the surge—which Petraeus explained in great detail at that ’09 CNAS event.

This is the kind of slight of hand that Nagl & Co. have been playing from the start—suggesting that COIN’s successes came from non-kinetic approaches, like special ops forces living among the people and anthropologists air dropping in to help win hearts and minds. Meanwhile, they paid some 90,000 Sunni fighters to side with them and helped Maliki kill or torture the rest.

Nagl continues the Kabuki less effectively in Knife Fights, which he prefaces by trying to say the book is “about modern wars and how they affect the lives of young men and women.” It is actually about John Nagl, who generally takes credit for bringing COIN to the upper echelons of the military culture, getting top brass to embrace it, and birthing a generation of young junior officers hooked on the juice.

Furthermore, he demands that “our politicians … approach future wars with greater humility,” when he shows no such willingness to do so himself. He says “the final tragedy of Iraq and Afghanistan would occur if we again forget the many lessons we have learned about counterinsurgency over the past decade of war.” Yet the book makes no attempt to tell us what those lessons are. It merely makes excuses as to why it didn’t work in Afghanistan, and to a lesser extent in Iraq, which he calls “an unsatisfying and untidy sort-of-victory.” He acknowledges that COIN under Petraeus was “imperfect and left behind a deeply troubled country that remains violent and unstable,” but claims it now has a “government the United States can live with.” (More on that later.)

According to Nagl, bad decisions made by civilian policymakers are to blame for what went wrong in Afghanistan, not the overzealousness of counterinsurgency as a magic formula. There weren’t enough troops for an Afghan surge, he complains. The U.S. gave Afghanistan democracy before they were able to handle it. The government in Kabul is too corrupt, the people illiterate, the neighboring Pakistanis untrustworthy.

Interestingly, Nagl also throws Gen. Stanley McChrystal under the bus in Knife Fights, saying Petraeus “had done a good job of underpromising and overdelivering in Iraq, but McChrystal took the opposite approach” in Afghanistan. That is almost laughable when the entire Beltway universe was on the COIN bandwagon at the time, “overpromising” an Iraq Redux in Helmand.

Worse, Nagl says McChrystal, “overinternalized the guidance” in the counterinsurgency field manual, or COIN bible, published in 2006. “Only some of the best weapons for COIN don’t shoot bullets,” Nagl writes, “and although dollars are weapons in this kind of fight, bullets work pretty well in a lot of circumstances.”

McChrystal, who made his name as a “man hunter” in Iraq, was surely aware of this, but one would have to have beeen living under a rock in 2009 not to have seen that he was under serious pressure to sell—and employ COIN—as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. He didn’t write the manual—Nagl did—and as it was full of such pabulum as, “sometimes the more you protect your force the less secure you’ll be,” it is no wonder McChrystal had a difficult time translating it on the battlefield.

And lest we forget, CNAS—of which Nagl was the director—published a paper at that very time saying “protecting the population (should) take precedence over all other considerations for the time being” and that the U.S. should “adopt a population-centric counterinsurgency that emphasizes protecting the population rather than controlling physical terrain or killing the Taliban and al Qaeda.”

But when McChrystal is fired, for not having a “natural caution” of the press, hero Petraeus is brought in for the save. He immediately starts the bombing, “and the results are almost immediate,” Nagl gushes. Of course he would have kept on winning, Nagl suggests, if Obama didn’t get in the way and impose a timeline for withdrawal.

And here you have Nagl’s marquee complaint of why COIN did not work in Afghanistan and why Iraq is a disaster today: it’s all Obama’s fault.

In Knife Fights, Nagl directs his fire at Obama’s choices in Afghanistan. But that was written before Iraq imploded on the global stage just a few months ago. Then, the Iraqi government could be “lived with.” But now, as evidenced in his recent public appearances, Nagl is accusing Obama of squandering every hard-fought gain made under Petraeus, and, by withdrawing all combat troops in 2011, being responsible for ISIS cutting its way through Iraq today.

Talking before a largely sympathetic audience at the New America Foundation on Oct. 27, Nagl said Obama should have ignored the will of the Iraqi people and stayed there for a generation at least. Nagl advocates putting no less than 15,000 combat “advisors” into Iraq now to get the job done. All those maimed and dead American veterans of Iraq deserve it.  “If it was important enough to bleed there,” it’s important enough to stay, he charged.

Obama is an easy target these days. One is reminded of how critical Nagl was of the Bush war architects when that administration was on the way out, too. Nagl knew Pentagon positions would be opening up—he even quit the Army in 2008 to hitch his star to the Democratic “administration in waiting” at CNAS. However, as his colleagues Michele Flournoy and Kurt Campbell were scooped up for national security appointments with Obama, Nagl was overlooked. He eventually left the directorship at CNAS to take a position at the U.S. Naval Academy in 2011; a year later, he became headmaster at The Haverford School, a wealthy boys prep school on Philadelphia’s Main Line.

For Nagl, timing is everything. Maybe he is hoping Knife Fights will get him back on the Beltway beat as a strategy guru in Hillary Clinton’s campaign for president. Not surprisingly, while chiding Obama’s judgments on Syria last year, he asserts that Petraeus, Leon Panetta and Clinton are “as good a security team as you’re going to find.”

But the failure of COIN is now well documented, despite Nagl’s attempts at historical whitewash. For this, his comeback may be short-lived. The “skunks at the party,” like Boston University professor Andrew Bacevich, and Gentile, are looking at the fairy dust on the floor and wondering why Nagl is still around.

“The hard fact is that COIN did not produce the outcomes promised, either in Iraq or in Afghanistan.  At best, it allowed the United States to leave Iraq without admitting defeat.  Today, of course, the rise of ISIS makes even that claim increasingly untenable,” Bacevich tells TAC.

My sense is that the officer corps once more finds itself in an intellectual void. Filling that void is an urgent priority, but is unlikely to happen until members of the officer corps acknowledge that the infatuation with COIN to which Nagl and others succumbed was from the outset deeply misguided — an excuse to avoid serious thinking about war and actually existing security requirements.

To wit: the next time we’re told to “eat it,” let’s ask what’s in it first. That way we’ll avoid the heartburn, and the knife fights afterward.

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.

The Iraqi Army Never Was

In a bloody ISIS attack on an Iraqi Army base just north of Fallujah on September 21, upwards of 500 government soldiers perished or disappeared, fleeing into the marshlands, the woods, or to the next base camp four miles away. Few were left behind alive, surrounded by militant fighters who by all accounts were supposed to be less equipped, less trained, and less organized than Iraq’s professional fighting force.

But the Iraqi security forces, into which American taxpayers poured some $25 billion over the course of a decade, had in the span of a summer, crumbled.

While pro-war critics blame the Iraqi military’s failures on the current administration for leaving the country too soon, American veterans and journalists who spoke with TAC say the army was corrupt, incompetent, and unmotivated from the beginning, and that top U.S. officials papered over this inconvenient fact for years in order to protect their commands and maintain public support for the U.S. intervention.

The Paper Tiger Folds

The September attack took place just 45 miles west of Baghdad, and the base had been under siege without food or supplies for a week when ISIS fighters dressed as the Iraqi Army rolled up in a convoy of bomb-laden Humvees and blew the place up. Details emerging from survivors indicate that the Iraqi Air Force refused to provide air support to its comrades under fire on the ground.

Perhaps the most stunning defeat for the Iraqi Army came when the entire 2nd Division collapsed in June as ISIS took over the strategic cities of Tikrit and Mosul. “Positions collapsed without a shot fired,” wrote analysts Yasir Abbas and Dan Trombly for War on the Rocks. “They left behind weapons, vehicles, uniforms, and no government opposition to ISIL within Mosul itself.”

All told, reports over the last month suggest that several Iraqi divisions—there were 14 to start—have just evaporated (American officials prefer to say they’re “combat ineffective”) since ISIS began its current march across Iraq. According to a military source quoted in the New York Times in June, 60 out of 243 Iraqi combat battalions “cannot not be accounted for and all of their equipment is lost.”

“You haven’t seen much of a fight because the (Iraqi) army just disappeared,” Marine Corps veteran Matthew Hoh, who served two tours in Iraq, tells TAC. “They were not made to defend the country against invaders.”

Feel-Good Generals

This is a long way from the rosy picture described by top U.S. generals like David Petraeus and his protégé Raymond Odierno (now Army Chief of Staff) just a few years ago. In June 2009, as the U.S. was readying the first phases of withdrawal, Odierno, then-commander of American forces in Iraq, told the media and Congress that Iraqi forces were ready to operate on their own.

“I do believe they’re ready,” General Odierno said from Baghdad on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “They’ve been working towards this for a long time. And security remains good.”

Petraeus told Congress a year earlier, “the performance of many units was solid, especially once they got their footing,” and that over 100 combat battalions were capable of taking the lead, “albeit with coalition support.” He continued in his April 2008 testimony to describe “an increasingly robust Iraqi-run training base” that “enabled the Iraqi Security Forces to grow by over 133,000 soldiers and police over the past 16 months,” with “an additional 50,000 Iraqi soldiers and 16 Army and Special Operations battalions” expected by the end of the year.

Of course, Petraeus was busy selling himself, too. He was already taking credit for what CNN’s Peter Bergen called bringing “Iraq back from the brink of disaster,” as “the most effective American military commander since Eisenhower.” It was in his best interest to try and prove that helping Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki vanquish all his Sunni and Shia rivals, and putting 100,000 Sunni fighters on the American payroll, were more than just temporary Band-Aids.

In a late 2013 treatise unfortunately titled, “How We Won in Iraq,” Petraeus said,

Over time, we and our Iraqi counterparts achieved slow but steady progress in building the capabilities of the Iraqi Security Forces. … Progressively, over the months and years that followed [the surge], the coalition turned over responsibility for security tasks to Iraqi forces until, at the end of 2011, Iraqi elements assumed all security tasks on their own, with only a residual U.S. office of security cooperation remaining in Iraq.

“Claims by Petraeus, Dempsey, and other U.S. generals of Iraqi effectiveness were always exaggerated or false,” said (Ret.) Col. Doug Macgregor, an author and Army consultant who served in the first Gulf War. “The generals were simply cultivating their Bush administration sponsors in pursuit of further promotion.”

A Military Divided

In May 2010, according to the Pentagon’s mandated report to Congress, there were approximately 666,500 security force personnel in Iraq. When the U.S. finally left Iraq in 2011, there were supposedly 930,000, including a 200,000-strong army. The U.S had invested billions in equipping and training them. Upwards of $500 million worth of equipment and material were just handed over to the Iraqis, while Maliki’s government contracted for billions more.

If ISIS, at the most, has 50,000 stateless fighters spread between Iraq and Syria, how has it routed such a superior force? The popular narrative, particularly on the pro-war right, is that President Obama squandered everything Petraeus had built by leaving Iraq too soon. In an interview in June, retired Gen. Jack Keane, co-architect of the surge, suggested that the Iraqi Army was “well-led and it was competent” while American forces were present, but broke down “systematically” after U.S. withdrawal under the leadership of Prime Minister Maliki.

And indeed, after the U.S. withdrew, Maliki did fail to populate his security forces with Sunnis, instead alienating all the Sunni fighters once on the U.S. dime by keeping them unemployed. At best, those Sunnis are now standing down in the face of the ISIS invasion. At worst, they are joining them.

But others say that’s only half the story. While the investment was real and the training, too, the entire effort was doomed from the beginning—when the U.S. invaded and disbanded Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath army in 2003. That was the closest thing to a professional military that Iraq had, and it was gone in an instant.

“Fundamentally, the fault was America’s for destroying the existing army, but there was nothing America could do after that to build a truly inclusive and effective new army,” war correspondent David Axe, who writes for the popular War is Boring blog, tells TAC. “That required compromise, will power and competence on the Iraqis’ parts—all of which were lacking.”

Others argue it was the corruption in the ranks, beginning at the top and filtering all the way down to the lowliest private, that sabotaged Iraq’s security forces. Commands were bought and sold, and subordinates were fleeced. According to a recent interview with author Patrick Cockburn, the going rate for a colonel’s position in the army is $200,000—$2,000,000 to be a division commander. Then one spends the rest of the time demanding grease from everyone else.

“They have no interest in fighting anybody; they have interest in making money out of their investment,” Cockburn told Tariq Ali in late September.

Lt. Col. Danny Davis traveled to Iraq in 2009 as a chief of a transition team with direct experience working with Iraqi commanders and recruits. “When I was sent out to train this battalion I had no idea who (commanders were) and how they got there. That was, ‘internal business,’” said Davis.

Shipments of gasoline, spare parts, and weapons would be pilfered before they reached their intended destinations, he recalled. Ethics were an anomaly. “All the skimming and graft and all the rest—a corrupt army can’t fight and won’t fight,” added Hoh.

A Marine Corps colonel who did not want to be identified because of his current status as a deployed active-duty officer, said he served multiple tours in Iraq and on the last, as a team leader for an Iraqi Army (IA) advisor team from 2007-2008.

“Based on that last tour with the IA, I’m not surprised what is going on in Iraq. The IA (battalion) I was with was considered one of the best, and were still lousy,” he wrote to TAC in an email.

Leaders looked out for themselves first by making side deals involving food, water, and even electricity if they were sitting on top of a generator. I got the first two battalion commanders I worked with fired for corruption that involved taking money out of soldier’s salaries and the rape of local Sunni women by the Shia soldiers. I understand what we consider corrupt in our culture was not in theirs, and I was learning to live with it. But I told them if it starts directly involving the welfare of their men, then I would come after them.

Yet corruption was only part of the problem. Starting from scratch meant that the military’s leaders had no institutional experience. As a fighting force they never became tactically sophisticated enough to deploy as coherent, effective units, or engage in complicated maneuvers that would require “taking it to the enemy.”

“They could not adapt rapidly and were not agile,” said the Marine colonel. “Against an agile, adaptive enemy, they would easily become morally, physically, or mentally isolated.”

Most of all, however, loyalty was the biggest factor in the Iraqi failures. After their own families, the soldiers and leaders were loyal to their tribes and then their religion, he said. “Iraq as a nation falls at the bottom of the list. Combine this with lack of cohesion, unity, loyalty, and camaraderie among themselves, and you have an organization that will disintegrate under pressure,” he wrote.

Set Up for Failure

There is enough blame to go around, said Maj. Donald Vandergriff (Ret.), who has done contract work training Afghan security forces. He said the U.S. made the same mistakes in Afghanistan and Iraq that it did in Vietnam over 40 years ago. “I’ve said all along, we keep trying to make these forces in our own image,” he said, and “they don’t take ownership because the system was forced upon them.”

The technology, the logistics, the modern air power, the intelligence—were and are all foreign to them. U.S. trainers come and go on short rotations, and there is no consistency, no ability to learn the foreign culture and understand the gaps. “Again we have to say, what kind of force would these people buy into? What kind of military can they afford and accept? Instead we force our own grand, narcissistic vision.”

In the end, the U.S. is returning to Iraq to bail out a country that then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta (despite his current views) said was “capable of [addressing] its own security needs.”

“Three years later and where are they now?” demanded Davis. “Were they ever able to function on their own?”

Perhaps an even more pressing question: how do we expect the U.S.-trained Afghan military to perform against the Taliban when most U.S forces leave Afghanistan at the end of this year?

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.

The Army Attacks Ebola

UN Geneva / cc
Photo by U.S. Embassy, Monrovia, Liberia

Last week, President Obama announced that the United States would be launching Operation United Assistance, involving not bombs nor combat troops, but special forces of another kind: doctors, nurses, and pathologists.

This latest military intervention will, however, involve 3,000 U.S. forces at the spear tip in the fight against Ebola. A Department of Defense assessment team has already landed in Liberia, the center of a West African war zone that, like the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, involves an aggressive adversary spreading rapidly and leaving senseless death in its wake.

Army personnel will be sent in to build field hospitals and help facilitate the training of health care workers who will be working directly with patients. They will be delivering medicine and medical supplies, but they won’t be providing security (at least right now). It is the kind of militarized aid that no doubt has some critics squirming about America’s expanding footprint on the continent. Others spent the last week groaning that Operation United Assistance takes our eyes and resources off the Islamic State—the “real” enemy—in Syria and Iraq.

But most editorial boards and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are joining health experts in heralding the move, and here’s why: this is by far the worst Ebola outbreak since the virus was discovered in 1976, and if it is not contained soon, we could be looking at a pandemic rampaging across the Third World on the order of history’s deadliest plagues. Will it come to the North America? It’s not likely, but the human toll is grave. As of Wednesday, Centers for Disease Control (CDC) projections are putting total infections as high as 1.4 million in West Africa by January if nothing is done soon.

If those moral implications aren’t enough, say advocates, think of the instability and economic wreckage that mass infections would provoke across the developing world, including many places already bordering on failed states and breeding grounds for extremism.

“The real danger is if it gets into the cities,” said Dr. Frederick Murphy, former Director of Infectious Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), who now teaches experimental pathology at the University of Texas Medical Branch. Murphy was there when Ebola was first named 40 years ago, and was the first person to actually photograph the virus with an electron microscope. He also helped discover the deadly Marburg virus, a sister filovirus to Ebola, first discovered in 1967.

The “Ebola Zaire” strain is now burning through Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea—leaving more than 2,800 dead since March. Current infections are at 5,843 according to the World Health Organization, with deaths at 2,811, but even they acknowledge the count is “vastly underestimated” because of the reality of underreporting in the region. Just this week, WHO released new projections, predicting 20,000 infections by Nov. 2 in the affected areas. Even worse, it said the virus was killing 70 percent of its victims, much more than the 50 percent it had been reporting up until now.

“If (it gets to the big cities) you can have a very large number of cases and that actually adds to the danger of it spreading around the world, to other poor parts of the world, where containment would be much more unlikely,” Murphy said in an interview with TAC.

“The reality is we have to get control of it. Are the resources going into the region sufficient? My guess is not, we are going to have to step it up. Overdoing it right now doesn’t have a lot of downsides,” said Scott Gottlieb, a physician and former Federal Drug Administration official during the George W. Bush Administration.

Like others, he believes the situation brings into focus Washington’s own lack of readiness in the event of a global, or even regional, pandemic. Infectious disease experts have been bemoaning shortfalls in research and development for years. What’s happening in West Africa scares them, whether it’s in their own backyard or not. They see this as a test—are U.S. health institutions ready? Hardly. A recent rebuke by the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General found that the agency isn’t even prepared to protect its own personnel (which includes FEMA and HHS, in many cases the front lines in a federal response), in the event of a pandemic.

“What’s more, a lot of the public seems not to be fully aware or not fully engaged in this,” added Gottleib, who is also a fellow with the American Enterprise Institute, “I was on C-SPAN taking calls from callers and it was fairly consistent that they did not want to see American troops going over there.”

For one, he told TAC, ordinary people see don’t see the military response as commensurate with what appears to be a low body count in West Africa. “But this is a contagion and it is growing.”

Perhaps people would be more on board if they knew what Ebola really is and what it does. The word conjures many images, but nothing could be more horrifying than the description set by Richard Preston in his best selling non-fiction, The Hot Zone, in 1995:

Ebola Zaire attacks every organ and tissue in the human body except skeletal muscle and bone. It is the perfect parasite because it transforms virtually every part of the body into a digested slime of virus particles.

Then, deliberately testing the reader’s own gastrointestinal fortitude, Preston launches on a description of the viral breakdown of the body, calling it “wiping the slate.” This involves systematic blood clotting, causing dead spots and hemorrhaging in the brain, liver, lungs and intestines, and tearing of the connective tissue that holds things, like organs, together. The virus rips out the top layer of the tongue and the lining of the eyeballs. It pushes unclotted blood out of the mouth and nose.

“It triggers a creeping, spotty, necrosis that spreads through all of the internal organs”— while the victim is still alive, he wrote.

The virus destroys the brain, with Ebola victims going through violent epileptic convulsions through the last stage. At death, the organs, which had “been dead or partially dead for days,” begins a “shock-related meltdown…. the corpse’s connective tissue … begins to liquefy, and the fluids that leak from the cadaver are saturated with Ebola-virus particles.”

Different strains of Ebola can kill both humans and animals, particularly primates, and is typically transferred from host to host—in a quite aggressive, predatory manner, writes Preston—through bodily fluids, including blood, secretions and the handling of organs. There have been reports of African villagers contracting the virus by kissing corpses at funerals.

There is a hot debate over whether Ebola can be transmitted through the air. Most experts say no. But there is some cause to believe that another strain, Ebola Reston, named after an outbreak among crab-eating macaque monkeys shipped to Reston, Va., for laboratory experiments in 1989, had traveled from the primary group of infected monkeys through the air ducts, infecting different monkeys in another room. That strain did not affect humans, so it’s sometimes lost in the debate over respiratory transmission. But the door in that conversation has not been closed, particularly when most scientists readily admit that Ebola Zaire is mutating all of the time.

“It’s still a controversial question because there is not an awful lot of data,” proving it either way, said Murphy, who was called in for the Reston outbreak.  Already, according to a study released at the end of August in the journal Science, the strain in the current outbreak has already undergone “hundreds of mutations,” that make it different from past outbreaks and more difficult to study.

As of the beginning of this week, Ebola Zaire—the most deadly of the currently identified strains—has killed over 2,800 people in West Africa since March. For context, consider that of all the previous outbreaks recorded in the last 40 years, the highest number of people killed in one event was in the first one, in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1976, when 280 people died.

“One of the scary things about this outbreak is that all the general models of the past have been broken,” John Connor, an investigator at Boston University’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories, told the Washington Post on Monday.

For Americans, this might evoke a generalized, uncomfortable feeling, but that’s more or less offset by media assurances that Ebola is not a direct threat, if Gottlieb’s C-SPAN callers are any indication. Aside from the largely forgotten Reston episode, the closest Ebola has gotten to the U.S. since then was this summer, when two American missionary aid workers contracted the disease during the current outbreak in Liberia. They were flown to a top medical facility in Atlanta and given the experimental drug ZMapp.

They survived. But there is no known vaccine or treatment for Ebola, and even if ZMapp turns out to be the cure—which is far from decisive (a Spanish priest who contracted Ebola in Sierra Leone died in August, even after taking ZMapp), its makers said this week that they have no more to give, and that it would take months to make a new batch.

That is why the resources—Obama has pledged $750 million, which includes the military component—are so important right now. The densely populated urban landscape, the lack of education and clean, equipped hospitals, the growing civil unrest (arbitrary lockdowns and travel restrictions are resulting in a shrinking food supply and other economic strains), poor sanitation, and fragile security conditions, all combine to make host-happy conditions for Ebola.

Gottlieb said if people really needed a national security reason to support Operation United Assistance, it was there, festering and bleeding out, a little more every day.

“It’s not just a Liberia problem,” he said. “We have to treat all these other countries as one big hot zone … if we get it wrong the results could be catastrophic.”

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.

Islamophobia Makes a Comeback

Sandeep Singh was dragged 30 feet under a pick-up truck after the driver reportedly called him a terrorist, told him to go back to his country, and then mowed him down in the middle of 99th Street in New York City.

Singh survived the ordeal, but he’s going to need skin grafts. He told police what happened and now Joseph Caleca of Long Island is charged with a hate crime. “I was attacked because I am a Sikh and because I look like a Sikh,” Singh, 29, told reporters from his hospital bed. “We need to create a world without hate.”

Thirteen years ago in the wake of 9/11, there were hundreds of similar incidents of violence and discrimination against Sikhs, who despite being Indians practicing Sikhism, were often confused with Arab Muslims because of their long beards and their turbans, called dastars.

But what happened to Singh didn’t take place in 2001, it was just a month ago, in August, indicating that no matter how far America gets away from the horrific events of 9/11, anger and prejudice against the perceived “enemy among us”—call it Islamophobia—is still just around the corner.

“Yes, anti-Muslim and anti-Arab sentiment is as alive today as it was in 2001,” declared Deepa Kumar, associate professor of media studies at Rutgers University, and author of Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire (2012).

Kumar and other experts in cultural politics and media tell TAC that it began after the attacks, when the so-called Global War on Terror muddied then-President George W. Bush’s words that this was “not a war against the Muslim faith,” by initiating widespread surveillance of Muslim communities, profiling of Arab and Muslim people and infiltrating their activities, even entrapment, all which the American Civil Liberties Union says continue to this day.

These law enforcement activities, combined with the hot rhetoric of far-right politicians, and the assistance of a growing cottage industry of self-appointed jihad hunters like Robert Spencer, Pamela Geller, and Frank Gaffney, has fanned the fear and intolerance among the American populace, critics say.

“After 9/11, people had questions but it was the people who provided the answers who created the problem—from the president on down,” said James Zogby, founder and president of the American Arab Institute.

“It started with they hate us for our values. He might have justified this by saying it was only a small minority of the Muslim world, but in people’s minds it was everybody (in the Muslim faith)” said Zogby, who published Arab Voices: What They Are Saying to Us and Why It Matters in 2012.

Match that cultural disconnect with a parade of new “terrorism” experts on cable news ratcheting up the threats to “the homeland,” including the possibility of sleeper cells lying in wait just over the nation’s borders, and suddenly everyone bearing a Middle Eastern name, wearing a hijab, or attending a mosque becomes suspect.

“There is a hatred of Muslims, there’s this idea that they are evil people,” mostly because, despite all the superficial talk to the contrary, no one in the media or even elite academia has really learned what the religion is all about, said Stephen Suleyman Schwartz, a writer and converted Sunni Muslim who now runs the Center for Islamic Pluralism, dedicated to giving voice to moderate Muslims, on the West Coast.

Schwartz is an arch critic of Wahhabism—a highly puritanical movement of Islam practiced by the 19 hijackers on 9/11—and believes it is both ignorance, and the reluctance of moderate Muslims to speak out against fellow Muslims, that have generated intolerance and hatred. “People come up to me on the street and say what’s the problem with Islam? What’s the problem with this religion?”

“I say (ISIS/Islamic State) is a radical wing—and this hasn’t always existed in Islam.” Fight ISIS, but leave the rest of the Muslim world alone.

The message, so far, just isn’t getting through.

According to Zogby’s Arab American Institute, which has been polling Americans on their views of religious and ethnic groups since the 1990’s, Americans’ dislike of Arabs and Muslims skyrocketed after 9/11 and has hardly budged since. Unfavorable ratings for Muslims have declined from a peak of 55 percent in 2010 to 45 percent in July, but at the same time, favorable ratings have plunged, from 41 percent in 2012 to 27 percent in 2014.

Republican attitudes are clearly skewing the results. When narrowed, 63 percent of Republicans had unfavorable views of Muslims, while only 21 percent had favorable views in 2014.

It’s not surprising, considering how Islamophobia has attached itself to Republican politics since 9/11. Any stroll through the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) will attest to that (though, ironically, CPAC itself was once accused of hosting a Muslim Brotherhood sympathizer—Grover Norquist, to be exact). Between Newt Gingrich comparing the “the struggle against radical Islamists” to the American Revolution, to presidential wannabe Herman Cain calling for loyalty tests for administration appointees, there has been no limit to the bald political rhetoric animating Capitol Hill debates and elections.

Meanwhile, well-funded fringe groups like Geller’s American Freedom Defense Initiative, have attempted to purge Muslim-Americans who have dared to “infiltrate” the White House and other high profile positions throughout federal government. They might have gone too far in 2012, however, when they suggested long-time Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin had connections with the Muslim Brotherhood.

But outside Washington, American-based Islamophobia has splattered subway walls (Geller’s brainchild), and even informed international mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik, according to his own writings. It’s call has been strident, peaking in 2010, when the streets of downtown Manhattan were filled with opposition to the Park51 Islamic Center, which had been planned for a property two blocks from Ground Zero.

That protest was spurred, not surprisingly, by Geller and Spencer, but the message resonated so well on the right wing blogosphere and media, that it was co-opted in political campaigns hundreds of miles away, and in some cases it worked. Like with Renee Elmers, who in 2010 won a congressional seat in South Carolina after making the so- called “Ground Zero mosque” a campaign issue.

Zogby and others see a limit to how well Islamophobia is working in political campaigns—out of 17 campaigns where the mosque was made an issue in that 2010 season, only two actually won. Rep. Allen West, whose fiery anti-Islamic rhetoric is legendary, lost his seat in 2012.

Zogby also points out that the anti-Arab and Muslim attitudes in his polls are clearly generational and racial. The negative numbers are driven by white middle aged men, particularly evangelical Christians; the positives from African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians and people under 30. They are “locked in,” however, which means there’s not much movement either way, and no one seems to be debating the issue either. “There are these defined groups and they have their defined attitudes,” said Zogby. “That’s the tragedy of it, there needs to be public discourse.”

And it needs to start with someone on the right wing saying, “we need to cut this out,” Zogby added. This kind of admonishment coming from the left just won’t do.

On a darker note, Kumar believes Washington has no real interest in curbing the bugaboo machine as long as its waging war in Muslim countries abroad. Plus, it’s much easier to raise the specter of fanatical militancy than to examine how our own policies in Iraq and elsewhere over the last decade may have created it, she said.

“In order to have an endless war on terror it is necessary to have an enemy that Americans fear and hate. This is how it worked during the Cold War as well,” she told TAC.

“Today, the enemy is the Muslim terrorist. And we are told constantly that this threat is everywhere and that we should therefore spend trillions of dollars to fight this enemy,” she added.  If that’s the case, expect a lot more fear-mongering back home as Obama readies for U.S airstrikes in Syria to fight the Islamic State (ISIS). Already, pop-culture figures like Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson are weighing in on the cable shows, saying the U.S. needs to “convert” ISIS or “kill them.”

“In a nutshell, I think the framework that we had after 9/11—which is the U.S. is now at war with terrorists wherever they are—is the same kind of rhetoric we have today,” said Kumar. The problem is, just like 13 years ago, “terrorist” often gets conflated with “Muslim” and “Arab,” and sometimes “Sikh.”

“That’s what Islamophobia is,” she said, “demonizing an entire population of people.”

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.

How Oil Rules Iraq

Alexander Smulskiy / shutterstock
Alexander Smulskiy / shutterstock

There is an oil tanker the size of four football fields representing the full measure of Kurdistan’s independence. And it’s sitting off the coast of Galveston, Texas.

This tanker is just one thread in the emerging story of Iraq’s tumultuous evolution, and oil’s commanding role in it. During the war, critics liked to say “it’s all about the oil,” but that is now truer than ever before. Kurdish sovereignty depends on it. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is fueled by it. And all through the violence and political crises of the last summer, the oil has continued to pump, keeping a fragile central government one step from implosion.

“Oil is the central facilitator of all the actors’ ambitions—it is how the Kurds hope to obtain eventual independence, how ISIS can finance the much larger organization it has become, and how the Iraqi state stays afloat,” said Steve LeVine, an energy expert and Future Tense fellow at the New America Foundation, in an interview with TAC.

“Absent oil, we would have a very different situation.”

Kurds Go to Court

The giant tanker United Kalavrvta is carrying 100 million barrels of crude oil pumped in Kurdistan and destined for LyondellBasell Industries, a Dutch-owned company in Texas. It has been anchored off the Texas coast in the Gulf of Mexico for a month. This week, a federal judge in Texas threw out a seizure order that could have drawn U.S. marshals into the protracted dispute over who owns the oil—Kurdistan or the central government in Baghdad.

The judge’s order, however, said, essentially that the U.S. has no dog in the fight, and the Kalavrvta can sail on, Kurdish flags flying. Iraq has a small window in which to appeal.

This is a critical juncture because the U.S. is saying, despite a recent U.S. State Department declaration otherwise, that it will not stop the Kurds from selling oil from their fields in the north, effectively bypassing the central government. Baghdad says that, constitutionally, Kurdistan Regional Government sales must go through the oil ministry and more importantly, they must share the revenues. But since December, the Kurds have shipped an increasing amount through Turkey—so far, some 6.5 million barrels via the Ceyhan terminal alone according to Turkish officials—reportedly to ports in Israel, Egypt, and beyond.

Just last week, amid the news that foreign oil giants, including Chevron and Exxon Mobile, were evacuating people from northern Iraq due to the violence, Kurdistan announced that it was working to significantly raise their pipeline’s export capacity from its current 300,000 barrels a day to 500,000 within months.

“The Kurds are becoming more confident of their ability to export crude independently of Baghdad,” said Julian Lee, a Bloomberg oil strategist, in a recent report. “At least four of the seven tankers that loaded Kurdish crude from Ceyhan have successfully discharged their cargoes, suggesting that willing buyers are starting to emerge.”

It also suggests that Baghdad’s bark is rapidly losing its bite. The Kurds have hired the best Washington lawyers to navigate the foreign market channels, and are clearly unphased after years of being stiffed on billions in oil revenues the central government was supposed to be sharing all along. If buyers in the region are willing to deal with Kurdistan as a rightful independent entity, then they are ready to produce the goods.

“The point is, the more they sell abroad the more legitimacy they have,” notes LeVine. For the Kurdish oil industry at least, recent instability in the north has made it stronger.

But for how long? 

ISIS Oil Barons

The rapidly advancing jihadist forces of ISIS have been effective in laying siege to and capturing strategic areas across northern Iraq (find a good map of this here), especially at or near oil-producing facilities. This includes Baiji, the nation’s largest refinery, which has been the scene of several intense battles between Iraqi government forces and ISIS fighters since the spring. ISIS reportedly briefly captured the refinery, which is big enough to produce a third to half of the oil for Iraq’s domestic energy consumption, in June. At the time, fighting produced a plume of black smoke that could be seen by satellites in space.

Iraqi forces said they thwarted new ISIS attempts to take Baiji again this week. It’s not clear how much production is actually occurring there right now—it went offline in June, and at least one report suggests that ISIS fighters have been messing with its pipelines ever since.

Meanwhile, the relentless violence that has displaced 1.2 million Iraqis, many of them minority Christians and Yazidis, has also sent a number of foreign oil companies fleeing, with others “battening down the hatches.” But with the Baiji siege it’s becoming clear that alongside the Kurds’ increasing oil empowerment, new ISIS oil barons are also emerging, stronger and better fortified for the next fight.

“They are basically a bunch of terrorists who grow (and shrink) based on whatever cash they can get,” said Luay al-Khateeb, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institute who is also an energy policy advisor to the Iraqi parliament.

They used to get their funds from sympathetic sources in the region, he told TAC. Now 60 percent of their assets are coming from smuggled oil, and they are using it “to expand their activities and recruitment and cause future harm.”

In addition to the oil and gas fields it commands in Syria, ISIS now controls seven small but functioning oil fields in Northern Iraq, and is smuggling oil out and selling it at a discount price in the Kurdish regions of Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and Turkey, he added.

Al-Khatteeb said the militants could be making upwards of $2 million a day from smuggled oil. The fields in Iraq they now control have an output capacity of 80,000 barrels a day. This jibes with recent IEA (International Energy Agency) reports. More recently, Theodore Karasik, director of research and consultancy at the London-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, estimated that total ISIS oil earnings could reach as high as $3 million a day.

An Aug. 25 report by Indira A.R. Lakshmanan for Bloomberg said ISIS now has the “ability to self-finance on a staggering scale.” Other financing includes extortion, imposing taxes and other smuggling, she reports, as the funding stream from outside donors now “pales in comparison” to ISIS’s income from these illicit activities.

But oil barons? Not quite yet, cautions LeVine. While everyone is inclined to believe the worst, the oil ISIS is reportedly smuggling to buyers is crude and delivered on trucks. There’s no concrete measurement available of how much they are selling, or what they are selling it for, although al-Khatteeb has estimated their price to be between $25 and $60 a barrel, a steep discount from the average $100 a barrel oil runs for on the world market.

Other impediments to ISIS’s newfound business model remain, such as the maintenance requirements of the fields they control. Are the militants paying workers and engineers, and are they able to get spare parts? If so, how much are they spending on that? We don’t know. “Some have cast doubt … even though they have a 80,000 barrel a day capacity in Iraq, they may only be producing half that because of maintenance requirements,” said LeVine.

And as far as getting the oil out of the country, the Kurds are less likely than ever to allow any more smuggling over their borders.

“We have one big fact—they control the fields, which produce this volume of oil. Beyond that the rest is murky,” LeVine said.

South Is Safe, for Now

Even with these unknowns factored in, it’s clear that the oil industry in the north is on an unpredictable trajectory that, while helping the Kurds break out, will require a lot more fighting and a major push by the Kurds, Baghdad, and increasingly the United States, to stabilize a market everyone believed would be flourishing once Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003.

In the south, Saddam’s old Shia enemies seem to be faring best, at least where oil is concerned. Experts tell TAC that production in the south, while down slightly, is humming along so far, free of the violence and political rancor in the north. Thanks in part to that southern oil, Iraq is pumping at a higher capacity than during the Saddam era, 3.1 million barrels a day, and prices have remained the same. BP, which works the Rumaila oilfield (the largest in Iraq at about 1.4 million barrels per day), initially cut staff because of the violence, but made a show to investors by the end of July assuring them that production was back to normal.

“(ISIS) can send suicide bombers (to the south) but they cannot wage a war or occupy or echo or replicate what’s happening in the north,” said al-Khatteeb. “So far key investments are far from danger.”

Corruption Is the Constant

Southern security stability is great for the foreign companies and the big oil interests in Baghdad, but even steady production doesn’t necessarily translate into economic stability in Iraq—a critical weakness that led to political and social upheaval in the Sunni areas, which ISIS was able to exploit fully this year. One of the major complaints against the former al-Maliki government was that oil riches weren’t trickling down to local governments in the form of services and resources.

Iraqi unemployment is quite high—hovering around 15 percent—and the poverty rate is anywhere from 18 to 28 percent depending on the source. According to the World Bank, only 46 percent of the country’s economy doesn’t depend on oil, which means the economy is “structurally weak.” So in a literal sense, oil is the biggest game in town, the “central facilitator in everyone’s ambitions,” as LeVine put it, even as it only benefits a few.

“Poor governance, an inefficient and easily co-opted judiciary system, inconsistent regulations, and security issues keep Iraq at the bottom of the global rankings for business,” according to the World Bank. Continuing violence and political instability will only make it worse.  For now, Iraq is on a path to continued GDP growth, with some estimates expecting as much as 6.3 percent growth this year, thanks to oil. “But no one knows where the money is going,” points out LeVine.

“A lot of corruption and waste. It is a source of discontent and instability. That’s not going to simply go away,” he said, even if ISIS is driven away or the Kurds decide to play ball with Baghdad. “It’s not going to vanish.”

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.

End the Drug War, Save the Children

U.S. Customs and Border Protection photo by Donna Burton
U.S. Customs and Border Protection photo by Donna Burton

The American audience sure loves its drug porn—from Scarface to the more recent binge-worthy popularity of the Grammy-winning series, “Breaking Bad.” There is nothing more intoxicating than the illicit, albeit vicarious, score.

But these drugs have to come from somewhere, and when we see the pictures of youth squeezed into concrete detention cells, or hear stories about the scabies, lice, and other ailments they brought in with them on the arduous journey from Central America, suddenly nothing seems very sexy.

What does one have to do with the other? A growing number of voices are trying to make it clear, despite the political clamor over the waves of unaccompanied children attempting to get through the southern border, that it’s all about the drugs. America’s drug problem, specifically, which goes beyond the cheap titillation of movies and film. It’s a $100 billion annual illicit drug industry, with some 23.9 million current users over the age of 12 (that’s more than 9 percent of the population 12 years and older).

In other words, America’s demand for drugs is driving children like Cristian Omar Reyes, an 11-year-old terrorized by gangs in Honduras, or Carlita, a 13-year-old Salvadoran, also fleeing gang violence, to the U.S-Mexico border. If you don’t want these children—an estimated 70,000 to 90,000 by the end of 2014—then the drug war must end.

“Of course there is a direct line between the drug war and the migration you are seeing today,” Terry Nelson, a retired U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer, who now works with LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition), told TAC. The only way to stop it is, “if you were to end the drug war today and begin to legalize all drugs.”

The idea is a dramatic and provocative one, but not at all novel. The notion that prohibition has created a $300 billion global black market that has only allowed the worst parasitical crime and corruption that goes with it to flourish is not new. Legalization advocates have been using the example of the Volstead Act, which outlawed alcohol consumption in the U.S. from 1920 to 1933 as the most salient example of prohibition’s violent, if not directly intended, repercussions, for years.

But it is not only our own lives as Americans, critics say, but the lives of millions of people in already poor, badly governed, and war-pocked countries that are paying the consequences for the drug war, and yes, our love affair with drugs. While opinion might differ on whether it should be called a “crisis” the waves of children bearing stories of dead parents and classmates and fear for their lives, are the best reminder we have that the war has been lost.

“The [right-wing conservative] view … it is overly simplistic and erroneous, that [children] are coming here illegally, that it is an invasion of our territory and we must deport them immediately. You are not taking responsibility for contributing to the problems yourself,” said Marco Careces, an editor and contributor for the Honduran Weekly and aerospace analyst for a Virginia-based technology firm who shuttles often between the Washington D.C. area and Central America.

“As long as you keep the drugs illegal, you will keep the revenues growing for the cartels,” he said in an interview with TAC. “Marijuana, and cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines—unless you’re willing to legalize all of them, there is always going to be a market for something.”

No surprise that Central American leaders have been saying this in greater numbers over the last several years. They see the writing on the wall. The drug war in our hemisphere has been an exercise in whack-a-mole, or as Cato’s Ted Galen Carpenter noted recently, a game of squeeze the balloon: “put pressure on the drug cartels in one area, and the drug trade just pops up somewhere else.”

Over the last four decades, the U.S. taxpayer has funded some $1 trillion for this war, which has only been successful in driving the illicit industry from Columbia (leaving environmental and economic devastation behind) to the Caribbean and Mexico (the scene of the worst cartel violence in modern times), down to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, where we see our handiwork flourish today. In 2012, when TAC reported on this angle of the war, the U.S. military and DEA had just abruptly halted an Iraq counterinsurgency-inspired operation with local police that left a string of civilians dead, including four killings that are unsolved two years later. At the time, according to the U.S. military involved, 84 percent of the U.S.-bound cocaine was crossing this Central American region.

“For them, the violence is terrible. People here just can’t imagine,” said Nelson, who worked for 30 years in federal border enforcement and customs, mostly in drug trafficking in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. At one point he led a team that seized 230 pounds of cocaine from smugglers in five years. When he retired in 2005, he looked around and saw that despite year after year of high profile seizures, the price of so-called blow on Main Street hadn’t budged.

“It’s a no-win situation,” he said. “I know what’s working and what is not. I was one of the one of the guys fighting the war.” He saw other retired law enforcement officers take up the banner of ending it. “These aren’t a bunch of long-haired hippies. These are serious guys who want to right a wrong,” he said of LEAP. “I am a conservative and I think this is a very conservative issue—crime and violence.”

The gangs work for the cartels, the cartels have helped to corrupt governments. They all make life miserable for the people who live in urban centers and the outskirts of these towns where the criminal enterprises have boiled life down to two choices: either cooperate (by joining or paying up), or hide, and hope the next bullet or swing of the machete doesn’t find you. Then there is the decision to flee to the U.S. where relatives already await, many of whom pay for the so-called coyotes to smuggle their loved ones through. There is promise there, or so they believe—jobs, education—and a chance to live.

According to author and Los Angeles Times writer Sonia Nazario, some 6,800 children were detained at the U.S. border three years ago. This year, they expect that number to reach upwards of 90,000. She said the gang members deported from L.A. back to Central America have joined up with homegrown groups flourishing from the recently redirected drug trade. As she writes in a recent New York Times profile of the children, whom she calls refugees, from Honduras: 

Gangs arrived in force in Honduras in the 1990s, as 18th Street and Mara Salvatrucha members were deported in large numbers from Los Angeles to Central America, joining homegrown groups like Los Puchos. But the dominance in the past few years of foreign drug cartels in Honduras, especially ones from Mexico, has increased the reach and viciousness of the violence…

Nazario describes how narco gangs actively recruit in schools, the relentless pressure to do the drugs and to join, the exposure to brutal crimes most Americans only witness—safe, in the comfort of their own homes—on Netflix and HBO. “I want to avoid drugs and death,” 14-year-old Carlos Baquedero Sanchez, told the author about his willingness to risk the dangers of flight to the north. His story mirrors others, some of whom have made the journey more than once, and will try again until they make it.

It all goes back to demand, however. There has been unprecedented movement toward decriminalization of drugs, even legalization, among Latin American, West African, Caribbean countries, and North American states. There has also been a push, which LEAP is involved in, toward transforming existing United Nations treaties on drug prohibition from criminal policy to that of a public heath and treatment posture in hopes of weakening the global black market, which, as we know, funds the world’s most dangerous terror organizations, too.

Yet it is clear that nothing will truly help until the U.S. government takes the first step. Being careful to save some blame for his own Central American presidential cohorts, Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernandez nonetheless told TIME magazine that, “This is a problem they (Americans) generate, I repeat, because of the connection between the drugs they consume in enormous quantities in the United States that are produced in the south and pass through Central America, generating violence, generating this migratory flow.”

Skeptics say the gangs would shift to another enterprise if drugs suddenly became legal—extortion, prostitution, human trafficking, etc. Perhaps so, says Caceres, but drugs are lucrative, easy to move, and have allowed these gangs and cartels incredible amounts of capital to invest in weapons and other material trappings of their power.

“Drug revenues are easy money. Making people pay through extortion when they don’t have anything to give it is hard. Controlling human beings (prostitution, trafficking) is a lot harder than selling drugs to American consumers,” Caceres insists. “If you dry up the revenues for the drugs from the States it will be easier for Honduras to get out of paying extortions. These cartels and gangs will get weaker. It will diminish in the long term.”

U.S. politicians, however are no closer to facing the bitter fruits of the failed drug war than they are to dealing with the thousands of unaccompanied minors currently sitting in federal detention centers awaiting their fate. Before it broke for summer vacation, the House passed two immigration measures, both emphasizing deportation over everything else. The bills, pushed by the right wing of the Republican Party, are unlikely to be signed—but they’re great November election optics.

“If you deport these kids back to where they came from, you’re actually making the problem worse. They are either going to be killed or recruited by the gangs and it will make the gangs more powerful,” said Caceres. “They will keep trying to get back in … a wall won’t stop the wave if people are desperate enough.”

Marijuana is now legal in two U.S. states. That is a long way from ending the prohibition of all drugs, something that seems nearly impossible today. But let the children be a reminder of a different path, Nelson suggested. “Drugs are too dangerous to be left in the control of cartels and drug gangs.”

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.

Washington Doesn’t Forgive Whistleblowers

“That was the first I saw of the racket.”

For Matthew Hoh, a former Marine, government official, and civilian contract overseer in Iraq, seeing “the racket” for the first time was a turning point that eventually led him to turn his back on a successful and heady career in Washington. He became a whistleblower by decrying a failing strategy in Afghanistan, and for a while, was a bone fide cause célèbre. But like others who have made similar leaps of conscience, Hoh has found out the hard way that Washington does not forgive.

“Certainly I couldn’t find work for anything,” he told TAC in a recent interview. “I went for something like 24 months out of 36 months without a paycheck. I couldn’t get temporary work or [work] driving a town car… I was selling cars.”

The Washington national security and foreign policy establishment is apparently closed to Hoh now, no matter how right he was. Starting over, as fellow whistleblower Tom Drake pointed out, can be an emotionally crippling experience, especially when you know you it was your own decision to take the path that brought you to this point.

Hoh’s story

It’s been nearly five years since Hoh turned in his resignation letter to the U.S. State Department, for which he was working as a senior civilian representative tasked with assessing the progress of the counterinsurgency operations in the Taliban center of gravity, southeastern Afghanistan. Hoh was sent into the country along with thousands of fresh U.S. Marine and Army deployments under new president Barack Obama.

At the time, the military establishment back home was confident that Gen. Stanley McChrystal, as a member of Gen. David Petraeus’ inner circle, could turn around the faltering war in Afghanistan with the came COIN doctrine that “won” Iraq during the surge. Hoh saw things very differently. As a Marine who had served in Iraq as both a company commander and a civilian administrator, he had already sensed the futility of that war, the corruption of the reconstruction effort—the aforementioned “racket” in which tens of millions of dollars worth of Iraqi assets and American money were disappearing into the pockets of crafty businessmen with little to show for it (things that another now underemployed whistleblower, Peter Van Buren, colorfully describes in his own memoirs). Hoh was seasoned but open-minded. He ended up, however, disillusioned.

“I was naive,” Hoh said bluntly. “I felt we learned our lesson in Iraq and were going to do things differently. When Petraeus took over (U.S. Central Command) in the fall of 2008, he made the point, over and over, that it wouldn’t be a military solution but a political solution. That’s what my view was. I wanted to be involved, it was my career, that is what I lived for.” Going back, Hoh felt, too, that it would help him with the demons at his own door, the onset of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). At least it would be better than dealing with it from a Pentagon desk job back home. He was 36.

“Not surprisingly,” he said, recalling his time in Nangahar province in the East and Zabul province in the South, what he found “was a very confused situation, very frustrating in terms of how the military was being run, how ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) was being run.”

He said it was clear they were trying to force an Iraq surge template on Afghanistan, and that it was not going to work. The U.S. presence there was fueling the insurgency, and increasing the legitimacy of Taliban forces. “We were trying to win some morality play,” he said.

When your narrative is false, then you are not recognizing that you are occupying a country and creating this political vacuum and not allowing a legitimate political order to be established, and you’re marginalizing a significant element of the population who will be playing into the propaganda of extremists like al Qaeda or insurgents like the Taliban.

For Hoh, it wasn’t just the strategy that was wrong, it was the war itself. “I find specious the reasons we ask for bloodshed and sacrifice from our young men and women in Afghanistan,” he wrote. Hoh’s struggle with what he was experiencing on the ground was compounded by the fact the American people were getting a completely different version of events back home. This “theater” would continue through Operation Moshtarek (Marjah) and the Battle of Kandahar in 2010. And this, says Hoh, was nothing to be proud of.

“I couldn’t look at anyone anymore and say their son or daughter died for a good cause,” he says, recalling his last days at the State Department. “I wrote up this resignation letter basically telling them off, that we all know what we are doing there is wrong and these kids are dying for no reason,” he recalled.

He wasn’t let go easily. He recalls that he met with then-U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke, who empathized with Hoh’s misgivings, but implored him to stay; he even convinced Hoh, momentarily, during a meeting at the Waldorf Hotel in New York. “We took his letter very seriously, because he was a good officer,” Holbrooke said in an interview with the Washington Post at the time. Holbrooke died in 2010.

But after returning to Foggy Bottom and seeing what he described as the Stepford-like resolve of the State Department staffers, Hoh knew things would be no different. “They were talking about a completely different war,” than the one he had seen. “They were wearing blinders. Clearly the only Afghans they had ever spoken to were Afghans in power, or those on our payroll. After that, I called (Holbrooke) back and said I can’t do this, it’s not the right thing.”

For his part, Hoh had not planned on going to the press. He had met a Post reporter at D.C. bar, watching a football game one evening about a month after sending the letter. After a lengthy conversation, he was asked to call the newsroom the next day. He spoke with top reporter Karen DeYoung. What happened next is history.

“When I woke up the next morning (after the publication) my phone messages exploded, my Facebook page exploded.” There were black suburbans and reporters with cameras congregating outside of his apartment building. He did a lot of media then, and not surprisingly, received backlash from the COIN crowd who immediately tried to discredit him on the military blogs and on Wikipedia.

“Media would tell me they were getting calls from people saying I wasn’t who I said I was,” Hoh said. After a whirlwind of speaking engagements and media appearances, speaking largely against the war, he retained a position with the new Afghan Study Group, hosted by the New America Foundation—his last real chance for working in the field he loves. Unfortunately, his PTSD was overtaking his life, his temperament was erratic, and he was drinking too much. He left voluntarily. From there, things went downhill.

“I went until April 2013 without a paycheck,” he said. He got back on his feet, mostly through friends and family and a good PTSD program at the VA. But all he had to look forward to at that point was finding odd jobs. He moved back with his parents in North Carolina to start over.

By then the props and staging had fallen away in Afghanistan, and it was clear COIN indeed had been an overhyped promise.  No one today is likely to argue otherwise. Nevertheless, it was dawning on Hoh that he had little chance of getting into his old field, even if his assessments about Afghanistan had been spot-on.

“A couple of friends had wanted to get me a job in the federal government,” he recalled. One had gotten a note back from a prospective employer that read simply, “this is the guy you want me to talk to?” with a link to his story online.

The Whistleblower Blacklist

Jesselyn Radack, a whistleblower and attorney who now serves clients like Thomas Drake and Edward Snowden for the Government Accountability Project, said Hoh’s case is not atypical. “I consider Matthew Hoh a hero,” she told TAC. However, “far too often, whistleblowers end up blacklisted, bankrupt, and broken. Even when you prevail, there’s still this taint, often due in no small part to the government upon which you blew the whistle.”

“It’s very socially isolating – you are disconnected from a profession in which you grew up, and a profession in which you poured a lot of yourself into, where you were recognized as being a part of the government and military,” said Drake, a decorated military veteran who was a senior-level National Security Agency executive when he started back-channeling his concerns to Congress and the press about the unconstitutional warrantless wiretapping of Americans in the early 2000s. He was charged with violating the Espionage Act for leaking classified information to the press, which he denied. The federal prosecution was relentless but eventually fizzled, and the government dropped all charges in exchange for a guilty plea to one misdemeanor charge, for exceeding authorized use of his government computer.

Drake was forced to do 240 hours of community service. He had already lost his job, his pension, and security clearances. He now works at an Apple Store.

“If you try to re-engage with another part of the government, your chances are slim to none. Washington [institutions] have very long memories, they can hold grudges for years, sometimes decades,” Drake tells TAC. Meanwhile, even non-profits that advocate for whistleblowers and civil liberties have been hesitant to bring him on, despite his expertise and obvious commitment. He senses that he might be seen as a drag with big name donors who are notoriously skittish when it comes to controversy. “I’m aware of it – especially in this climate.”

That’s why, added Hoh, “you see all these (whistleblowers) at the Ridenhour awards (of which Hoh and Drake are both recipients) and these guys are working at craft stores or Apple Stores or the YMCA.”

He said he is in a much better place today and frankly, wants nothing to do with the Beltway scene other than to advocate for greater government transparency and whistleblower protections. While he continues to look for full-time employment, he is lending a hand to the Institute for Public Accuracy’s

Does he have advice for future whistleblowers? Hoh certainly doesn’t want to discourage them. “Don’t be naive about it and prepare yourself and your family and reach out for help,” he said.

Regrets? No. If anything, he now sees Washington for what it is—“a racket.”

“No one is going to hire you to tell them what they are doing is wrong. It’s about the money. Money drives the policy,” he said. “I don’t think I’ll ever get a job there but you know, it doesn’t bother me anymore.”

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.

This story has been updated to accurately reflect that Matthew Hoh could not obtain temporary work or work driving a town car after going public.

Afghanistan’s Deadly Indecision

UN Photo/Fardin Waezi
UN Photo/Fardin Waezi

One might call Dr. Abdullah Abdullah “always a bridesmaid, never a bride,” now that the former Afghan foreign minister is trailing behind political rival Ashraf Ghani in the preliminary presidential election results this week. But that would indicate a degree of levity in Afghanistan’s political process that just doesn’t exist.

Instead, a protracted stand-off over the winner of the election is deadly serious business, threatening to destroy any chance for a smooth transition of power now that the problematic long-time President Hamid Karzai is finally on his way out, as are we. In fact, if Americans weren’t already war weary and disinterested enough, a power vacuum—or a potential civil war—will only accelerate the calls to get out completely. If that comes to pass, will Afghanistan someday look like Iraq does today?

“This paralysis is critical in a country where the next president will control Afghan forces and almost all Afghan spending. Worse, there is no guarantee of national unity once a decision is made, and less and less incentive for outside powers to provide the support Afghanistan will so desperately need,” Anthony Cordesman, former Department of Defense official and national security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, tells TAC.

And that support spells billions of dollars in aid, from farming and reconstruction to security and economic development. All that is now at risk if both sides cannot agree on the results of the election by inauguration day Aug. 2, when Karzai’s term officially expires.

Moreover, the U.S is not likely to keep troops there for long if the election leaves a weak leader in charge. This could happen if most Afghans believe the election is not legitimate, like in 2009. At that time, Karzai was blamed for widespread fraud in his own victory over Abdullah. “What you don’t want is what Abdullah said is true—that (this) election was cooked—and then you have what you had in 2009,” offered Larry Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and former Assistant Secretary of Defense.

“That would be the  worst outcome,” for both the United States and the Afghans who are embarking on their first independent presidential election without Karzai, who the U.S helped to install in 2001, he told TAC. “If it turns out that’s the case, then it won’t be good in terms of being able to keep the country together to deal with the Taliban. Look at Iraq—Iraq was a rich country, and look what happened there.”

Both Abdullah and Ghani have said they would sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) that would keep U.S combat troops in Afghanistan beyond the end of this year, which Karzai had refused to sign. There are currently 33,000 American troops there now, but they are slowly coming home. Obama wants to keep close to 10,000 soldiers in Afghanistan until 2016, but a political crisis would certainly hinder those plans.

“Losing U.S. support will leave either presidential victor with the strong possibility that his governance will be untenable,” wrote The Guardian’s Spencer Ackerman on Wednesday.

Election Fraud Looms Again

On one side you have Abdullah, 53, who rose to political power as a key figure in the Northern Alliance, which helped the U.S. and its European allies oust the Taliban from Kabul after 9/11. On the other is Ghani, a former World Bank official and darling of the West, who surprised everyone with his huge lead in the run-off election. Abdullah is accusing Ghani and his supporters of inflating his numbers by stuffing ballots in key districts. Before the results were even announced on Monday, Abdullah said he would not concede until all the “clean” votes were separated from the fraudulent ones. Last month, he produced tapes that allegedly exposed an International Election Commission official talking about stuffing ballots in Ghani’s favor.

Abdullah took a similar stance when he dropped out of the 2009 run-off after accusing—rightly, as it turns out—Karzai of widespread fraud. But this time around, he appears unyielding. After it was announced that Ghani was leading in the runoff 56.4 percent to his 43.5 percent, Abdullah called the results a “coup against the peoples’ votes,” and declared his own victory in the election. “You are the victorious; you have won the vote — there is no question,” Abdullah shouted to a cheering crowd in western Kabul, according to Erin Cunningham at the Washington Post. “We would rather be torn into pieces than accept this fraud. We reject these results … and justice will prevail.”

Meanwhile, the BBC’s Karen Allen reported, “People at the venue where Abdullah Abdullah spoke to his supporters were angry. A crowd tore down a poster of outgoing President Hamid Karzai chanting: “Death to Karzai. Long Live Abdullah!” According to a Wall Street Journal report on Wednesday, powerful supporters were already announcing they would only follow a “parallel government” formed by Abdullah (so far Abdullah himself has stopped short of saying that he would create one). ”We want to defend our rights in a civilized way. But if it doesn’t work, we will take our weapons again,” said Abdul Wasi, one of Mr. Abdullah’s supporters at his rally. For his part Abdullah has said he does not want “a civil war.”

At the center of the crisis are the IEC and the International Elections Complaints Commission (IECC), who will decide whether they will be conducting a “deep” audit of a million or more votes in the run-off. That there was fraud in the voting is not in dispute. When announcing the results on Tuesday, IEC head Ahmad Yousef Nuristani acknowledged that more than 11,000 ballots had already been tossed as fraudulent, and about 60 percent of those had been cast in favor of Ghani. (The Afghan Analysts Network’s Martine van Bijlert says that overall number is implausibly low considering the record 8 million voter turnout.)

A third of the polling stations—about 7,000—of country’s polling stations could be set aside for this deeper audit, but officials seem at odds over who should do it, and how to keep to the Aug. 1 timetable. According to Kate Clark at The Afghan Analysts Network:

If the ‘deep audit’ was to go ahead, Abdullah could theoretically be back in the race. 7000 polling stations, containing an unknown, but substantial number of votes, would create enough room for the result of the election to change radically. On the other hand, we could still be facing more protests by Abdullah from outside the electoral tent and no end, as yet, to the deadlock.

Abdullah won the first round in June with 44 percent of the vote—not quite enough to hit the 50 percent mark needed to avoid a run-off. Ghani trailed him with only 31.5 percent of the vote. Ghani could have mobilized and consolidated the Pashtun ethnic vote, which had been split between other candidates in the June election, (Ghani is a Pashtun, which represents some 42 percent of the Afghanistan population; Abdullah is half Pashtun and half Tajik, which counts for about 27 percent of people.) But to amass a lead of over a million votes—with a turnout that has surprised even the most seasoned election observers?

Some would say, as Jeffrey Stern, an American correspondent who has also done development work in Afghanistan, noted, that “the numbers are probably too good to be true.” Does that mean that Ghani is the mastermind of an elaborate fraud? “I do think there is something to it (fraud) but it would be very hard for me to believe that it is a top-down thing,” Stern told TAC. “I don’t think Ashraf Ghani himself orchestrated some plan to stuff ballot boxes. In some of those (polling stations) in the far east of the country, ballot stuffing was going to happen regardless of whoever the Pashtun was running.”

This is why the election officials, international observers, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry are all insisting on three things: that the preliminary results aren’t final, that an audit must be conducted, and, most of all, that both sides calm down.

Some observers guess that Abdullah will step aside before letting things dissolve into an irrevocable schism. Both candidates’ supporters, however, have ramped up tensions on social media to the point that a ban on Twitter has been proposed to last until the end of the elections. After Monday’s announcements, both sides took to the streets, celebrating or protesting with gunfire, depending on their allegiances.

“I would say I’m worried but I’m not terrified,” said Stern. So far.

President Ghani?

Stern sat down with Ghani earlier this year in Kabul, and called him “one of the smartest people I have ever interviewed, period.” Like others, Stern said Ghani’s strengths are his intellect, sophisticated assessment of failed states, and seeming detachment from the tribal/factional machinery and ethnic politics that threatened to devour Karzai if he didn’t play ball over the last 13 years.

“What I would reserve judgment on is how good he is going to be with coalitions, and getting things done as a president and not just the head of one sector,” Stern said, referring to Ghani’s 2002-03 stint as finance minister under Karzai.

Nemat Sadat, a progressive activist who has been fighting for gay rights in Afghanistan, believes the ostensibly skewed results of the run-off were the result of heavy Pashtun turnout in favor of Ghani, not necessarily widespread fraud. Abdullah, Sadat said, is a  “traditional powerbroker” who may generate protests and even chaos for a few weeks, but “has no political future in Afghanistan.”

“Many powerful figures from ‘the lost generation’ decades of civil war will be replaced by younger Afghans who are western-educated, technologically savvy and have a solid command of English,” he said in an email exchange, believing that Ghani is well positioned to usher in a new meritocracy that eschews the patronage and cronyism that built the poppy palaces and personal bank accounts for a small number of politically-connected Afghans in the post-Taliban years.

That hopeful vision aside, Sadat said the international community and Afghan masses “are not ready to endanger what little they have built for a fresh round of conflict that could spark an open civil war.”

There is little more the U.S. can do than to encourage an open and thorough audit, and advise against threats by Abdullah’s supporters to create a parallel government. Whether they can get it together will determine how involved Washington will be in the country moving forward. Most Americans may not even care. “At some point,” said Korb, “you’ve got to leave, and then it’s up to them.”

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.

Iraq Vets Ask: Was It Worth It?

American veterans are watching the unfolding disintegration of Iraq less than three years after the U.S. military withdrawal, and are facing the news with complex turns of trepidation, anger and sorrow.

“I spent ten months in Mosul and when I heard on BBC that it fell, I thought well, that just sucked. I tell you I spent most of my day that day looking at the news of what happened in that city—you’re very much tied to the city where you served,” said Jason Hansman, an Army reservist who served in a civil affairs battalion attached to the 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division in 2004.

“I was hoping to make it a better place,” he told TAC, noting that many of his buddies have been actively reminiscing on social media since ISIS (The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) began taking over territory in Sunni Iraq. In the meantime, he said, “these graphic images from Iraq, this can certainly become a trigger, there are certain vets who avoid the news entirely,” because of the pain it brings.

“What’s interesting,” Hansman added, “is what my commander posted that evening … he wrote, ‘I want you guys to know the time we were there was worth it.’”

It’s been 40 years since the fall of Saigon, but the range of emotions pervading that short phrase—it was worth it—are suddenly as alive now as they were among returning veterans of the Vietnam War. This is no surprise, say vets who spoke with TAC, since the two have become mirror experiences: wars fought but not entirely won, in countries whose tragedies grew back like brittle weeds over a mowed lawn once the American military machine rolled away.

But more than not, the phrase is turned as a question, now plaguing a new generation of American men and women: was it worth it?

The answer? It’s complicated.

“You serve with some really great people over there—most guys and gals did their best, and they did have individual noble intentions, but the problem is it was war, and war is complete madness, it is a breeding ground of unintended consequences,” said Matthew Hoh, a former Marine Corps captain who commanded a combat engineer company in Tikrit and Anbar—two places now overrun by ISIS—from 2006 to 2007.

“It’s hard to square that, then, when you and everyone was doing their best. You were trying to go in there and treat the Iraqis you met with the utmost respect. But it did not matter, when your individual actions were meaningless to what was going on there,” he told TAC. “The fact that we were there picking winners and losers in someone else’s country it unleashed elements out of our control.”

Not all Iraq-era veterans are the same, any more than their Vietnam counterparts. Though the older vets have been pitied, caricatured as angry and troubled, and used as textbook lessons and political props, they have never spoken with one monolithic voice. Their post-war views about whether their service “was worth it,” or the failures of the war itself, depend largely on their personal experiences there. And their politics.

One school of thought still believes the Vietnam war was a noble cause that could have been won if the U.S Congress and American people had the belly to endure. Others believe our Cold War detour into Southwest Asia should never have happened. Still another school is somewhere in the middle, hovering in the space between those hopeless photographs of the last American airlift during the capture of Saigon, and an earnest conviction that their service was not in vain.

“I was in the Pentagon (in 1975), I saw Vietnam crumble, it was a disturbing scene, seen mainly in the Washington Post and on TV,” said John C.F. Tillson, who spent most of 1968-69 in the jungles of Vietnam as a troop commander (and Silver Star recipient) in the 11th Armored Calvary Regiment. He recalls the years afterward living with dueling emotions of guilt and regret, reconciling the reality of a broken strategy with the desire to move on.

“The ending of the Vietnam War and what appears to be the ending of the Iraq War, and probably the Afghanistan War, are very similar—we go in there, we prop up a government, and it falls apart,” Tillson told TAC. “You will certainly find, as I’ve been reading in the press, an entire spectrum of opinion of what should be done (about it),” he added.

For the Iraq veterans who have shared their thoughts in local papers and military forums over the past two weeks, this is certainly the case. ”I have mixed feelings,” said Issac Macias of Chicago, who was 21 when he was deployed to Iraq, in the Chicago Tribune. “Everything we did, all the man-hours we put in. It goes down the drain in a couple of days.”

“We are a big country, and I felt like it was a humanitarian mission to stop a tyrant, Saddam Hussein, from killing people with chemicals and torturing,” said Macias. The paper said his “transition to civilian life was difficult,” and current events have “made the processing even more difficult.”

Military writer Alex Horton, who served in Iraq in 2006 with the Third Stryker Brigade, Second Infantry Division, has some advice for his fellow veterans wrestling with their feelings right now:

Iraq veterans should not beat themselves up by attaching their ideas of sacrifice – of worth to a nation – to that broken government we left behind. We did what was asked of us. We held up our end of the bargain. [Iraqi Prime Minister] Maliki did not, and many Iraqi troops similarly betrayed their own people when they chose not stand between extremists and their own countrymen. It has always been their fight, but that is especially true now. The American public and its Congress allowed the war to happen, and it was the US military’s job to help Maliki create the security necessary to establish a functional government. The march of Isis to Baghdad shows how spectacularly they have failed.

With shades of Vietnam, Army Staff Sgt. Richard Baca II, who served in Baghdad and Nasiriyah, told Military Times that politics got in the way of winning, resulting in today’s crisis.

We would get reports of large amounts of insurgent activity or IED activity or we would tell higher up that the Iraqi police on the ground were telling us that al-Qaida or terrorists were in certain parts of the city and we would want to act upon that and try to root them out — and we would be told that wasn’t our mission, our mission was something else.

So does that mission include going back into Iraq to “finish the job”?

“I think that most veterans would not have strong feeling about returning,” Tillson surmised, noting that with all veterans, there will be varying opinions. “I think the majority would say that we have done enough or that we shouldn’t have been there in the first place.  A few might say let’s go back and help them but they will be in the minority,” he said. “The two groups of people I wouldn’t trust are the neocons and the generals because … by and large they have not demonstrated good judgment about these issues.

After Captain Hoh left the Marines for a senior-level foreign-service position in Afghanistan, he publicly resigned in protest against the war, which he felt wasn’t worth the continued casualties and expenditures. He is obviously averse to reengagement in Iraq.

“As a veteran, it drives me nuts that people are thinking of putting troops back there – it’s only going to accomplish getting more troops killed. We would not be seen as peacekeepers or referees, but as taking one side,” he said. “I don’t understand why people think if we only kept troops there everything would be great. We got kicked out, the Iraqis did not want us there any longer.”

Hansman, who says he feels his service “made him a better person,” is slightly less inclined to weigh in either way. “I don’t know, I don’t have the full picture,” he said. “At the end of the day, if anything happens, we want to make sure we do it right, that we’re taking our time and above all, thinking about what happens when these soldiers get home. Let’s be realistic about the situation we’re putting them into.”

Tillson guesses that while he has devoted his own post-Vietnam career to learning and teaching strategy, most “veterans don’t focus on the Big Pictures, they tend to focus on the veterans they fought with.” The “Blackhorse Regiment” reunions he’s attended were always a case in point.

“The things people talk about at the reunions are not about ‘grand strategy,’ or how the war was a mistake,” he said. “They think about the people in their unit, the people they knew, the things that happened – both good things and bad – but no one talks about whether the war was worth it and I suspect that is the case with today’s veterans as well.”

Perhaps. But when they are asked, it’s clear vets are thinking about the question.

“I completely disagreed with the decision to walk away from Iraq,” former Army Sgt. Kenneth Mancanares told the Military Times. “Now, to be honest, I’m trying to think if there’s even a way I could get back out there. I’m sure there are a lot of guys feeling that way. I really wish that I could sign up on something tomorrow and join a volunteer group that’s going there to stand up for these people.”

Hoh says he and his buddies don’t agree. “I think a lot of them – the guys who are out – are glad they are out. We talk about whether we would ever want our nephews or nieces to serve. I can’t imagine anyone in my family serving in a system so broken,” he said.

As for Iraq, he added, “we just shake our heads and say this is unbelievable, that history really does repeat itself.”

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.

Bowe Bergdahl Takes Obama’s Heat

Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy
Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy

Bowe Bergdahl walked off his post a 23-year-old man of little renown. He’s come back, but in the days since his controversial release from Taliban captivity, the media-generated hostility against him and the White House that negotiated his release has all but led to convictions of desertion (for Bergdahl) and impeachment (for Obama) in the court of public opinion.

Military and legal experts who spoke to TAC, some on background, others freely on the record, say this episode is about much more than one soldier out of the hundreds of thousands who served in Afghanistan walking off. It’s about more than the supposed “worst of the worst” who were Taliban exchanged for him, or President Obama not notifying Congress, or even the soldiers who claim their buddies died looking for Bergdahl.

Today, Bergdahl has become the perfect stand-in for a presidency half the country more or less despises. He is seen as a soldier who is not “really” a soldier because, according to murky e-mails sent to his father before his June 2009 disappearance, he was unhappy with the war. His vilification—some, like ubiquitous war pundit Ralph Peters, want Bergdahl stripped of everything (or maybe just executed)—is the very apex of the partisanship and ideological warfare that has marked the modern political era. It’s so toxic that national unity—even over the return of one missing American—seems forever unattainable.

“The country is divided roughly down the middle, and worse, the political overlap between the two parties is almost non-existent,” said Eugene Fidell, who teaches military law at Yale University. And the Republicans, he said, “determined early on that their best strategy was to neuter this president.” This, he added, will join “endless doomed efforts” to do that, like the campaign against “Obamacare” and Benghazi (referring to the 9/11/12 attack on the U.S consulate in the Libyan city of Benghazi, the truth of which a host of Republicans say has been covered up by the White House).

“In all honesty, it looks like to me, here is an element of the Republican Party that was hoping that Benghazi was going to be the club to bludgeon the president with and when that didn’t work out then this comes along,” said one Army officer who did not want to give his name. Another, a Navy JAG officer, told TAC he believed the Republican was actually elevating the five newly released Taliban, making them more important—and potentially more dangerous—than they ever were.

It may just be politics, critics point out to TAC, but the results are poisonous. “I make no particular brief on behalf of Bergdahl,” said author Mike Lofgren, who spent 30 years working as a staffer on Capitol Hill, “but maybe they should wait until the facts come out. The fact that the Bergdahl family is subject to death threats shows that the Republicans are basically exploiting a current of psychotic vindictiveness.”

Six members of Bergdahl’s former platoon engaged in an aggressive turn through the print and TV talk show circuit (their interview with Fox’s Megyn Kelly boasted 14.5 million shares alone through Glenn Beck’s website, The Blaze), not only calling Bergdhal a deserter, but claiming he was actively seeking out the Taliban and had caused the death of U.S. forces looking for him (there is no clear evidence to back either point). Afterwards, mothers of the dead soldiers began to come forward, too. One said she had heard nothing of her son’s connection to the Bergdahl case—until these platoon mates contacted her family within the last week.

“In their lust to get after (Bergdahl) and use people who say all the combat deaths are attributed to Bergdahl, some members of the media have opened up all these new wounds for families of soldiers who did die,” said Lt. Col. Daniel Davis, who considers himself a conservative but has been an arch critic of the war policy in Afghanistan. In a recent piece for The National Interest he wrote that Bergdahl “deserves the same presumption of innocence that any other American citizen accused of a crime receives.” “The evidence,” for Bergdahl causing these deaths, “is extremely iffy. So now there is new fresh pain for people who don’t deserve the pain, and for whom my heart bleeds.”

The New York Times noted that the interviews with those aforementioned soldiers in Bergdahl’s platoon were arranged “by a Republican strategist,” who turns out to be Richard Grenell, who worked for former Bush UN Ambassador John Bolton and as well as Mitt Romney’s failed 2012 campaign, according to Buzzfeed. He’s now a founding partner at Capitol Media Partners. His colleague Brad Chase told Buzzfeed that the soldiers “reached out” to Grenell, who then shopped them around to the likes of The Weekly Standard, Fox, and the Wall Street Journal, all of which published interviews with the veterans, as well as varying degrees of condemnation directed at Bergdahl and the White House in the immediate wake of Obama’s much-maligned Rose Garden ceremony announcing Bergdahl’s release.

Not more than a week later, the FBI said it was investigating death threats against Bergdahl’s parents, Robert and Janie, who have also come under fire by the runaway online mobosphere. “They are completely overwhelmed by this,” noted Davis, who has been in touch with Robert throughout his son’s captivity. “I marvel how he has been able to endure.”

Critics of the hardening narrative against Bergdahl say his own negative words about the war and his experience in the unit, as reported in a sympathetic profile in Rolling Stone by the late Michael Hastings two years ago, has unfairly branded him “anti-American,” and has given the warhawks fodder for which to backhandedly blame him for the failure of a war they had once so vehemently supported.

“We’ve got Bergdahl in our grasp,” sarcastically penned David Axe, whose recent column cut through the bombast and defied the evolving trope that Bergdahl was a traitor who killed his fellow Americans by walking off. “Defeated on the battlefield in two back-to-back wars, we can vent our frustrations on this sad, lonely and nearly-starved young man.” He added:

[The Taliban] beat us in a war of our choosing. Hate them for it, if you think it helps. But don’t blame their victory, and our losses, on Bergdahl. …

Two hundred and ninety-five coalition troops died in Afghanistan in 2008. Five hundred and twenty-one died in 2009. More than 700 perished in 2010. Bergdahl’s regiment was going to fight—and suffer casualties—regardless of whether planners tailored the unit’s operations to help gather intelligence on Bergdahl’s whereabouts.

(Ret.) Air Force Lt. Col. Karen Kwiatkowski, who became an activist against the Iraq and Afghanistan wars after she retired in 2003, told TAC that she believed Bergdahl was indeed targeted for his views. “The [neoconservative] right and warmongering left hates Bowe mainly because he passed judgment,” she said.

Charles Pierce, who runs the political blog at Esquire, took the point about the e-mails further.

the indecent charlatans of our political class are making quite a meal out of e-mails that Bowe Bergdahl sent home to his parents in which he sounded disillusioned with America’s mission in Afghanistan. Good god, is that where we’re at now? A soldier’s grousing is now a window into his “treason,” which is presently being manufactured for domestic political consumption by a rabid exaltation of chickenhawks…

“The vast majority of uninformed folks who get their news from soundbites and have the memory-span of two Facebook postings seem to have forgotten that MANY Americans (including some of those calling for [Bergdahl’s] head on a platter) were very disillusioned with these wars,” said (Ret.) Lt. Col. Lorraine Barlett, who served as a defense attorney with the U.S. Military Commissions at Guantanamo Bay. She cautions against a hasty conclusion until the military investigation into the desertion claims are complete. “Calling Bergdahl a traitor is merely punishing him (and upping the ante) for his views,” she told TAC in an email.

Republican surrogate Michael Gerson thought it clever to charge Bergdahl this week with “delusional naïveté” (and for violating “his oath”). The Rolling Stone article, informed by the emails, as well as interviews with Robert Bergdahl and others, described a 23-year-old who, when he signed up at the recruiting office, believed he would be on a humanitarian mission a la COIN (counterinsurgency, circa 2009). He talked about protecting the population against the Taliban. He envisioned living with the Afghans, learning their language—all of which were Gen. David Petraeus’s chief selling points to Washington in 2009, and eventually bought the military another 30,000 troops to “surge” into Afghanistan in early 2010.

That surge has largely been considered a failure, and the war itself a long, hard lesson in lowered expectations. That Bergdahl may have gone into the war expecting one thing and experienced another wasn’t delusional. What he found was profound disappointment, say critics, and it was perfectly normal. “If you check the private email of the guys over there I’m guessing you are going to see plenty of similar stuff,” noted Davis.

But the emails in the context of the Rolling Stone article and fresh hearsay coming from fellow soldiers have all but locked up the public case for Bowe the deserter. His father’s long beard—now reportedly shaved—and his willingness to reach out to Taliban in sympathetic tones through social media in an attempt, his friends say, to keep the lines of communication open, have drawn ugly rebuke from commentators on the right, too. Echoing much of the anti-Muslim rhetoric heard after 9/11, Robert Bergdahl has been called an  “anti-American” and a “radical pacifist.” Laura Ingraham even remarked that with his beard, “he actually looks like one of the terrorists.”

The Obama administration certainly did not help its own cause. Nearly everyone TAC spoke to said Bergdahl had been prematurely judged, and a victim of politics, but that the White House could have notified Congress, or at the very least, skipped the Rose Garden ceremony. Optics are everything. Even reliably middle of the road columnist Dana Milbank said the White House was suffering from “group think” and had made bad decisions that poisoned the well. Everyone wants to “look at all the facts,” said Davis, just without the hyperbole.

Chuck Hagel, meanwhile, spent five hours Wednesday in hearings on Capitol Hill, largely defending the exchange. But toward the end, he admitted that “we didn’t handle some of this right,” including keeping Congress in the loop.

But as Fidell noted, this is “a battle for the narrative.” And the Republicans, by making Bergdahl a symbol of betrayal, and Obama a symbol of imperial power, so far seem to be winning—if the polls can be trusted. Veterans appear firmly on the side of letting Bergdahl hang out to dry, and the whole of America remains divided on the issue. Not surprisingly, only 39 percent said Obama should have traded the five Taliban, or “the worst of the worst,” for Bergdahl. In another poll, 56 percent of Americans (65 percent of vets) say Washington paid “too high a price” for Bergdahl.

Not surprisingly, that is, after seven straight days of political skullduggery and emotional button-pushing. “The politics of this entire episode are rather disheartening,” noted Stephen Vladeck, law professor at American University and writer at “I suspect we would have heard similarly excessive language from congressional Republicans if President Obama had not made this deal,” Vladeck shared with TAC in an email, “and had allowed an American POW to continue to languish, and potentially die, in enemy custody.”

Fortunately for Bowe Bergdahl’s sake, we’ll never know.

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.

Memorial Day Nightmare

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki. Photo via Army Medicine.
Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki. Photo via Army Medicine.

For the first Memorial Day in recent memory, the backdrop is not only burgers on the grill but a Veterans Affairs scandal so big that it threatens to take down the VA secretary and tarnish the president’s party. One whistleblower after another has emerged alleging that regional VA facilities have hidden just how long vets are waiting for care. Some veterans, they charge, have died waiting on a “secret list” before ever seeing a doctor.

As Memorial Day highlights the sacrifices of so many men and women in America’s wars abroad, longtime critics of the VA say this is a key moment for much-needed institutional transformation. What kind of transformation is up for debate—some say today’s VA crisis proves government-run healthcare just doesn’t work. Others are calling for VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to step down. But all would agree the system is broken, and veterans deserve more than a bureaucracy bent on covering its own behind.

“In the last 15 years, this has probably been the most serious scandal that I’ve seen that’s involved the VA. But I can’t say I’m surprised,” says attorney Glenn Bergmann of Bergmann & Moore, LLC, which focuses solely on veterans’ disability claims. He says the current system is like “shoots and ladders”—and it’s mostly “shoots” for the veterans, designed to delay disability claims, delay healthcare, and delay the medical research that leads to benefits.

“We’re talking about people who have written a check payable to the government for everything, up to including their lives,” he says. “They’ve taken bullets, fought these battles, and they come back and say, what is this?”

“This” appears to be a mountain of 1.2 million total pending disability claims and an immense backlog of medical appointments—largely the result of a million new Iraq and Afghanistan veterans filing claims and accessing VA benefits since 2001. The VA has been unprepared to deal with it.

Staff in a number of VA facilities turn out to have been putting more energy into covering up their inability to care for vets than actually caring for them. The charges against at least 10 facilities (as of press time) are simple, the consequences potentially severe: all but the VA St. Louis Health Care System (more on them later) have been accused of purposefully manipulating hospital records to make their appointment wait times and backlog statistics look better. Some of these records might even have been destroyed in anticipation of embarrassing probes and inquiries.

In the case of the Phoenix VA Health Care System uproar, sparked by a CNN investigation in late April, it’s alleged that at least 40 veterans died waiting for appointments. Many had been placed on a so-called “secret waiting list” that would hide the fact that they were not given an appointment within 14 days of calling the facility. Washington had set the within-14-days-of-calling window as guidance for VA facilities after the backlog firestorm first erupted over a year ago.

To beat the system, staff simply didn’t enter these veterans into the electronic system—the one Washington overseers use to monitor backlogs and wait times—until they were guaranteed an appointment within 14 days. Many of the veterans reportedly languished for months in the meantime.

“The scheme was deliberately put in place to avoid the VA’s own internal rules,” said whistleblower Dr. Sam Foote, who gave CNN the information.

Some veterans did not survive the secret list. Navy veteran Thomas Breen, 71, waited more than two months for an appointment to address blood in his urine. He died of undiagnosed Stage 4 bladder cancer, according to CNN. “They neglected Pop,” said son Teddy Barnes-Breen, who claimed he and his wife called the VA numerous times to hurry the appointment, to no effect.

An internal investigation has yet to officially tie the wait lists to any death in the Phoenix system. But after that story broke, whistleblowers at other VA facilities began to come forward with similar “secret list” stories. In Colorado, according to USA Today, many of the 6,300 vets at the VA outpatient clinic were waiting months to be seen, and staff were punished if they “allowed records to reflect that veterans waited longer than 14 days.” In Wyoming, a nurse was put on leave after emails emerged confirming a secret list there. Similar allegations surfaced at two Texas facilities, as well as the Gainesville, Durham, and Chicago VAs. At the Albuquerque VA, a whistleblower has charged that incriminating records over secret lists have already been destroyed.

Investigations have begun into all of the claims. In some cases, VA officials have denied that their staff schemed. “There was no attempt to manipulate wait times,” Dr. Cynthia McCormack, director of the Cheyenne facility, wrote in a letter to the Wyoming Congressional delegation on May 2.

In St. Louis, things got decidedly more troublesome when a doctor at the hospital— who says he has since been demoted for his troubles—accused the mental-health staff there of seeing as few patients a day as possible, driving up the wait times for appointments and putting vets with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other mental-health issues at serious risk. Hospital officials have denied his claims, and said the charges are being investigated.

As a result of the complaints, the American Legion—an organization that in recent years has generally stayed out of political controversy—demanded on May 5 that Secretary Shinseki, who has been serving in the role since 2009, be fired. For his part, Shinseki, who testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on May 15, says he is “mad as hell” over the various allegations, and on May 16 he announced the resignation of Robert Petzel, the undersecretary for health.

Veterans’ advocates immediately jumped on the resignation as a “token” move—Petzel’s retirement after a 40-year career at the VA had been in the works for months, his replacement already nominated. “We don’t need the VA to find a scapegoat; we need an actual plan to restore a culture of accountability throughout the VA,” says Tom Tarantino of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, which so far has not called for Shinseki’s firing but has demanded reforms in the wake of the scandal.

“There may indeed be serious doubts about Dr. Petzel’s leadership as it relates to recent allegations of manipulating wait times for VA health care appointments, but his early departure does nothing to solve those concerns. We need accountability and transparency throughout the entire VA health system,” Tarantino says.

Up to this point, veterans’ advocates and lawmakers on Capitol Hill have been split over whether Shinseki should go. He’s been generally well-liked—a disabled veteran himself, he gained respect from war-policy realists during the Bush administration, when as Army Chief of Staff he questioned whether then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was low-balling the number of troops needed to execute the post-invasion Iraq War mission. Rumsfeld spurned him, but Shinseki was ultimately vindicated by realities on the ground.

Now the realities on the ground are nibbling away at his testimony that the Phoenix scandal might be ascribed to “isolated” staff behavior. We already have a memo saying the VA was aware facilities were playing fast and loose with numbers four years ago.

“I have a lot of respect for the man, but I am disappointed with him,” says Bergmann. “He took a lot of time to get out in front of this. He was called out.”

“I think Shinseki should go, but first I think he should start to turn around the health care side,” says Hal Donahue, an Air Force veteran, writer, and advocate. “Accountability, there needs to be accountability,” he told TAC. Among other things, he suggests ombudsmen for each section of the VA system. He supports a current House bill that would give the secretary more authority to fire or demote top executives.

Some commentators on the right, including Charles Krauthammer at Fox News and Michael Tanner of the Cato Institute, have used the scandal to promote privatization of veterans’ healthcare, saying the crisis not only proves the government-run system doesn’t work, but also doesn’t bode well for Medicaid, Medicare, or Obamacare.

“As the federal government takes over more and more of the healthcare system, there should be a lesson for us,” writes Tanner. “Simply promising more healthcare does not mean delivering more healthcare. And government healthcare systems have a very poor record of delivering what they promise.”

But others say simply giving vets a card to access private care—with all of its own pitfalls—would shift the government’s responsibility to the veterans to the private sector, and that could further isolate vets. The government must figure out how to solve the VA’s problems.

“It’s not just delayed heath care, but delayed claims adjudication, it’s understaffing,” Bergmann tells TAC. “It’s a lack of training, lack of oversight. I’m surprised [Shinseki] is not barnstorming the regional offices trying to figure out what went wrong.”

One might compare what is happening today with the 2007 scandal at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, in which officials were accused of allowing injured soldiers to languish in isolation amid deteriorating living conditions. The stories pervaded the mass media and Capitol Hill so completely that reforms were initiated with unusual speed. In 2011, the storied hospital was closed and folded into Bethesda Naval Medical Center.

But after all the publicity and promises, the underlying problems with soldiers’ care still persist: a series of “Warrior Transition Units” were created in the wake of the Walter Reed scandal, but evidence shows that the units became troubled repositories for sick or problem soldiers.

Bergmann says officials are already bragging that they’ve brought down the disability claims backlog from nearly a million to 344,000 over the last year, but it’s a sleight-of-hand—many of those claims aren’t fully adjudicated and have become part of the appeals backlog, which currently has 274,660 claims on it with an average wait of four years, according to the Veterans for Common Sense.

“The VA is in a hurry to make the president’s goal” of reducing the backlog of initial claims,” Bergmann says. So the error rate is high, as are rates of benefits being denied, and “the net result is the claims are moving from the new-claim pile to the appeal pile.”

Longtime advocates are wary when President Obama says he, too, is “madder than hell,” yet after meeting with Shinseki last Wednesday only promised more reforms. They say this could have been anticipated years ago. They want action, and demanding “where’s the beef?” this Memorial Day weekend is about much more than what’s on the grill.

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.

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