Tag Archives: Afghanistan

The Legacy of School Building in Afghanistan

The Legacy of School Building in Afghanistan

It’s not surprising this happens in a war zone but suprising that so much false information is given out about it.

Over and over, the United States has touted education — for which it has spent more than $1 billion — as one of its premier successes in Afghanistan, a signature achievement that helped win over ordinary Afghans and dissuade a future generation of Taliban recruits. As the American mission faltered, U.S. officials repeatedly trumpeted impressive statistics — the number of schools built, girls enrolled, textbooks distributed, teachers trained, and dollars spent — to help justify the 13 years and more than 2,000 Americans killed since the United States invaded.

But a BuzzFeed News investigation — the first comprehensive journalistic reckoning, based on visits to schools across the country, internal U.S. and Afghan databases and documents, and more than 150 interviews — has found those claims to be massively exaggerated, riddled with ghost schools, teachers, and students that exist only on paper. The American effort to educate Afghanistan’s children was hollowed out by corruption and by short-term political and military goals that, time and again, took precedence over building a viable school system. And the U.S. government has known for years that it has been peddling hype.

BuzzFeed News exclusively acquired the GPS coordinates and contractor information for every school that the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) claims to have refurbished or built since 2002, as well as Department of Defense records of school constructions funded by the U.S. military.

BuzzFeed News spot-checked more than 50 American-funded schools across seven Afghan provinces, most of which were battlefield provinces — the places that mattered most to the U.S. effort to win hearts and minds, and into which America poured immense sums of aid money.

At least a tenth of the schools BuzzFeed News visited no longer exist, are not operating, or were never built in the first place. “While regrettable,” USAID said in response, “it is hardly surprising to find the occasional shuttered schools in war zones.”

At the schools that were still running, BuzzFeed News found far fewer students than were officially recorded as enrolled. Girls, whom the U.S. particularly wanted to draw into formal schooling, were overcounted in official records by about 40%.

USAID program reports obtained by BuzzFeed News indicate the agency knew as far back as 2006 that enrollment figures were inflated, but American officials continued to cite them to Congress and the American public.

As for schools it actually constructed, USAID claimed for years that it had built or refurbished more than 680, a figure Hillary Clinton cited to Congress in 2010 when she was secretary of state. By 2014, that number had dropped to “more than 605.” After months of pressing for an exact figure, the agency told BuzzFeed News the number was 563, a drop of at least 117 schools from what it had long claimed.

The military, the other main source of U.S. funding for education, said it does not know how many schools it has funded since the war began. Last month, the Pentagon told BuzzFeed News that since 2008 the military had funded the construction or refurbishment of 786 schools. This month, a spokesperson revised that number down to 605 and said the new number encompassed “a variety of projects that included new construction, refurbishment, or simply donating supplies such as desks or textbooks.”

Harper isolated on NATO defence spending

From Jeffrey Simpson

Mr. Harper’s isolation could be read indirectly into the reporting of last week’s phone call between him and U.S. President Barack Obama. Whereas the Canadian “readout,” or report, of the conversation made no mention of defence spending, the White House reported that “the President stressed the agreement on increased defence investment in all areas is a top priority at the NATO summit.”

A “top American priority” is always to cajole NATO allies into spending more on defence. That priority is certainly not Mr. Harper’s. He has developed an ambivalent and somewhat contradictory attitude toward the military, and it toward him. The Prime Minister and his advisers and the top military brass circle each warily, harbouring their respective reservations about each other.

To put matters aphoristically, Mr. Harper’s government likes the idea of the military more than it likes the military itself.

The idea of the military means history, monuments, medals, ceremonies, parades and repeated rhetorical praise. The military itself means buying equipment, deploying it, dealing with veterans and wrestling with a budget that always seems to go up unless the political masters get tough.

The military has produced some nice headlines to an image-obsessed government, notably from the Afghanistan mission, but it has also delivered headaches and bad headlines, especially over procurement. Delays and problems have beset such purchases as the new generation of fighter aircraft, maritime helicopters, search and rescue aircraft, ships and some smaller gear.

For this government (as for previous ones), the military seems always set on a permanent “ask,” but for the military, this government like previous ones, promises more than it delivers and takes on missions that stretch the military’s means of delivery.

The World Has Changed

And the United States finds itself between a rock and a hard place

Deep into this summer of global turmoil, with the United States once again seeking to steer the course of events in Iraq with precision-guided missiles, my thoughts have turned to the late historian Tony Judt. In a brief but brilliant essay written for The New Republic hours after the 9/11 attacks (not available online), Judt described gazing out his downtown-facing New York University office window that late summer morning to watch the 21st century begin.

The prevailing geopolitical dynamic of the coming century, he argued, would be disintegration.

And so it has been. Nearly 13 years later, the international order painstakingly constructed by the United States in the years following World War II has begun to crumble. That order survived and expanded its reach throughout the Cold War because both superpowers played by the traditional rules of international relations, despite the intensity of their ideological conflict. The U.S. and the Soviets were engaged in a national rivalry on an international scale, with nearly all the countries of the world compelled to join sides. And as the American side flourished, so, too, did the institutions it founded and funded throughout the West and in those regions of the developing world that joined the anti-Communist side of the Cold War.

It was partially inertia that led this order to persist and expand further for more than a decade following the collapse of the USSR. But by September 2001 (if not before), we had turned a corner into a new reality, one in which insurgent forces throughout the Middle East, northern Africa, and South Asia would attack key elements of the international order. Not laterally, as the Soviets once did and Vladimir Putin’s Russia is doing now in Ukraine, but from below, using the asymmetrical warfare of mass terrorism.

From al Qaeda to ISIS, these groups have had two main targets. One is America and its global leadership as expressed through international institutions (the U.N., IMF, World Bank, USAID, NGOs, etc.). Another is the nation-states created by the colonial powers after World War I, long ruled by autocrats and dictators who were sustained by those American-led international institutions.

The question is how the U.S. should respond to this challenge to the international order. To judge by our words and actions from 9/11 right down to President Obama’s latest statements and policies, we haven’t got a clue.

On one side are the neoconservatives. One might think that their identification with the Iraq War and the bloody, unpopular, nearly decade-long occupation that followed it would have discredited the neocons. But to judge by the influence they continue to exercise on Republicans and Democrats alike, it hasn’t.

There are at least two reasons. As military maximalists, the neocons are always able to respond to a failure by suggesting that things would have turned out better if only more force had been used. The problem, then, is never the policy itself but merely its insufficiently tough-minded execution. In this respect, neocon ideas are empirically unfalsifiable.

Then there’s the simplicity and coherence of the neocon reading of history — qualities that were on full display in Robert Kagan’s much-discussed cover story in The New Republic last May. The essay elegantly (and flatteringly) portrayed the U.S. as the singular guarantor of world order since the end of World War II. Without the ample use of American military might to impose and sustain that order, chaos would have reigned in the past — and will reign again in the future, if Barack Obama and his successor fail to fight it militarily. As events this summer have spun out of control from Kiev to Mosul, Kagan’s late-spring predictions have appeared to receive lightning-fast confirmation.

So is more active military engagement the answer? Can the United States use force to bring stability to Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and thereby prop up the crumbling international order?

Sure. All it would take is millions of troops and an occupation of indefinite duration. Think of George W. Bush’s Iraq surge times 10 — or 20.

Needless to say, America has neither the will nor the resources to attempt anything remotely like this. Especially because the occupied Muslim populations would be exceedingly unlikely to appreciate the humiliation of long-term occupation by a foreign, Western, Judeo-Christian power. Our very efforts to bring peace and order would fuel the very insurgency we’d be trying to combat. (This is of course precisely what happened in Iraq from 2003 to 2007.)

So what does a President do?

Unless we are willing to depose Maliki, reoccupy the country with hundreds of thousands of troops, impose order with overwhelming force, and accept the resulting casualties and blowback, the situation is exceedingly unlikely to improve in any serious way.

Short of that, we could of course focus on protecting Iraq’s Kurdish regions. But that might hasten the dissolution of the nation, leading to an increase in violence throughout the rest of the country. Renewed calls for outright Kurdish independence could also end up stirring unrest and violence in Kurdish areas just over the Turkish border.

One definition of tragedy is a situation in which there are no good options, in which every conceivable course of action — no less than the choice to do nothing at all — seems to make things worse or merely defer inevitable heartbreak and suffering.

Americans, incorrigibly optimistic, are famously averse to tragedy. Which means that we’re unlikely to respond well to the rapidly multiplying tragedies of our time.

But that doesn’t mean the tragedies can be waved away with bombs and good intentions.

So again tell me why invading Iraq and getting rid of an already isolated and neutered Saddam Hussein only to have him replaced by Al Qaeda 2.0 was a good idea?  This is all related to the incredibly flawed foreign policy (if we can call it that) of the W. administration and as bizarre as it is, the fulfillment of Osama Bin Laden’s goal in attacking the World Trade Centre.  According to CIA reports, he wanted to provoke a disproportionate response by the United States that would turn the Middle East against it militarily and domestically.  It’s too soon to tell but in some weird way, this could be happening.

When confronted with the problem, Gulf leaders often justify allowing their Salafi constituents to fund Syrian extremist groups by pointing back to what they see as a failed U.S. policy in Syria and a loss of credibility after President Obama reneged on his pledge to strike Assad after the regime used chemical weapons.

That’s what Prince Bandar bin Sultan, head of Saudi intelligence since 2012 and former Saudi ambassador in Washington, reportedly told Secretary of State John Kerry when Kerry pressed him on Saudi financing of extremist groups earlier this year. Saudi Arabia has retaken a leadership role in past months guiding help to the Syrian armed rebels, displacing Qatar, which was seen as supporting some of the worst of the worst organizations on the ground.

A regional war

Thomas Ricks points out that this isn’t a war in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and now Yemen, it’s starting to feel like a war against an entire region.

Why doesn’t anyone ever tell me these things? I knew the United States conducted drone strikes a few years ago, including one that killed an American citizen on purpose, something that I still don’t get in legal terms.

But sending in piloted aircraft is a major step. Suddenly I begin to see what several of you have been worrying about, as the U.S. conducts military operations in, let’s see: Afghanistan. Iraq. Libya. Pakistan. Yemen. Pretty soon we may be able just to refer to it as one big old war.

U.S. Army deploys psychological operations against U.S. Senators

From Rolling Stone

Congressional delegations – known in military jargon as CODELs – are no strangers to spin. U.S. lawmakers routinely take trips to the frontlines in Iraq and Afghanistan, where they receive carefully orchestrated briefings and visit local markets before posing for souvenir photos in helmets and flak jackets. Informally, the trips are a way for generals to lobby congressmen and provide first-hand updates on the war. But what Caldwell was looking for was more than the usual background briefings on senators. According to Holmes, the general wanted the IO team to provide a "deeper analysis of pressure points we could use to leverage the delegation for more funds." The general’s chief of staff also asked Holmes how Caldwell could secretly manipulate the U.S. lawmakers without their knowledge. "How do we get these guys to give us more people?" he demanded. "What do I have to plant inside their heads?"

According to experts on intelligence policy, asking a psy-ops team to direct its expertise against visiting dignitaries would be like the president asking the CIA to put together background dossiers on congressional opponents. Holmes was even expected to sit in on Caldwell’s meetings with the senators and take notes, without divulging his background. "Putting your propaganda people in a room with senators doesn’t look good," says John Pike, a leading military analyst. "It doesn’t pass the smell test. Any decent propaganda operator would tell you that."

At a minimum, the use of the IO team against U.S. senators was a misuse of vital resources designed to combat the enemy; it cost American taxpayers roughly $6 million to deploy Holmes and his team in Afghanistan for a year. But Caldwell seemed more eager to advance his own career than to defeat the Taliban. "We called it Operation Fourth Star," says Holmes. "Caldwell seemed far more focused on the Americans and the funding stream than he was on the Afghans. We were there to teach and train the Afghans. But for the first four months it was all about the U.S. Later he even started talking about targeting the NATO populations." At one point, according to Holmes, Caldwell wanted to break up the IO team and give each general on his staff their own personal spokesperson with psy-ops training.

I may have an overly elevated view of the intelligence of U.S. Senators but I personally believe that polling numbers at home were far more influential the psy-ops were in the field.  That being said, every general in every battle in every war has wanted more resources, money, and for many, glory so I am not sure this is as much as a story that Rolling Stone is making it up to be.

Shouldn’t NATO be winning in Afghanistan by now?

The Independent is asking some tough questions overt the lack of progress in Afghanistan.

Twelve months ago, Marjah was a ghost town, deep in rural Helmand province and deep in the grip of the Taliban. The bazaar was closed and those who could run had fled; the rest cowered in their homes.

It was never going to be easy to take from the Taliban. More than 120 Taliban and at least 60 coalition and Afghan troops paid the price with their lives. Today, the Afghan national flag flies over the town, the schools are open and the opium trade is under attack. Marjah is crawling back to something approaching normality.

"Security is good now. Life is better," Gul Ahmed, a wheat farmer, told the Kansas City Star. "Bad people like the Taliban cannot come here now. They took money from us. They took food from us. They forced us to go with them to other provinces to fight."

Twelve months ago, Marjah was a ghost town, deep in rural Helmand province and deep in the grip of the Taliban. The bazaar was closed and those who could run had fled; the rest cowered in their homes.

It was never going to be easy to take from the Taliban. More than 120 Taliban and at least 60 coalition and Afghan troops paid the price with their lives. Today, the Afghan national flag flies over the town, the schools are open and the opium trade is under attack. Marjah is crawling back to something approaching normality.

"Security is good now. Life is better," Gul Ahmed, a wheat farmer, told the Kansas City Star. "Bad people like the Taliban cannot come here now. They took money from us. They took food from us. They forced us to go with them to other provinces to fight.

Successive military surges have pushed the Taliban out of towns like this across Afghanistan. If the coalition partners are to meet their target of withdrawing from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, they must maintain their momentum – or at least hold the ground they have gained. At a time when President Obama talks bullishly about beginning to reduce the number of troops, even standing still is an ordeal. More than 7,000 Nato and Afghan troops took part in the battle of Marjah a year ago; today, some 2,000 US marines remain.

"If the marines left," said Sidar Mohammad, who owns a bakery in Marjah’s Loy Chareh market, "the Taliban would be back in two weeks."

I am not sure when the shift was that wars have timelines to end by.  So the President says the war will end in 2014, is that a military or a political decision (I think we know the answer).  If the U.S. government is interested in security, why not leave a division in Afghanistan?  They left tens of thousands of troops in Japan after WWII, Korea, and Europe which went a long way in providing security for the region.  I know this is a different kind of war than facing down the Soviet Union but can you imagine if JFK or any other US president had said that, “We’ll be out of Germany no later than 1970” or Reagan said, we will only continue new weapons program development until 1990.

I struggle with the Afghanistan mission as much as anyone but a fixed withdrawal date makes little sense to me and seems to defy common sense.

Rumsfeld’s memoir

Donald Rumsfeld has written a memoir.  He places part of the problems in Iraq on Condoleezza Rice.

What Mr. Rumsfeld offers is a far more believable account of events, one that holds individuals responsible for failures of execution. He describes a White House with internal problems, at the heart of which was a National Security Council overseen in Mr. Bush’s first term by Condoleezza Rice. Ms. Rice’s style of management, argues Mr. Rumsfeld, led to indecision, which in turn led to the lack of a coherent post-invasion plan, to a sluggish transfer of power to Iraqis, and to a festering insurgency. If nothing else, this gives historians something valuable to ponder as they work on an honest appraisal of the Bush years.

Mr. Rumsfeld tells me that he sees his 815-page volume as a "contribution to the historic record"—not some breezy Washington tell-all. In his more than 40 years of public service, he kept extensive records of his votes, his meetings with presidents, and the more than 20,000 memos (known as "snowflakes") he flurried on the Pentagon during his second run as defense secretary. Mr. Rumsfeld uses them as primary sources, which accounts for the book’s more than 1,300 end notes. He’s also digitized them so readers and historians can consult the evidence first-hand at www.rumsfeld.com.

Of course Colin Powell is partially to blame

The memoir relates notable instances when this dynamic played out, but none with more consequence than the muddled plan for postwar Iraq. The Defense Department pushed early on "to do what we’d done in Afghanistan"—where a tribal loya jirga had quickly anointed Hamid Karzai as leader. "The goal was to move quickly to have an Iraqi face on the leadership in the country, as opposed to a foreign occupation." Mr. Rumsfeld’s early takeaway from NSC meetings was that "the president agreed."

Yet Colin Powell’s State Department was adamantly opposed. It was suspicious of allowing Iraqi exiles to help govern, claiming they’d undermine "legitimacy." It also didn’t believe a joint U.S.-Iraqi power-sharing agreement would work. These were clear, substantive policy differences, yet in Mr. Rumsfeld’s telling, Ms. Rice allowed the impasse to drag on.

The result was the long, damaging regency of Paul Bremer as the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority—which Mr. Rumsfeld believes helped inspire the initial Iraq insurgency. Mr. Bremer, who set up shop in one of Saddam’s opulent palaces, continued to postpone the creation of an Iraqi transitional government. He instead appointed a "governing council" of Iraqis but refused to give even them any responsibility. The result: delays in elections and in building post-Saddam institutions.

"You are always better having a president look at each option, at the pros and cons, and make a decision among them, than trying to merge them," says Mr. Rumsfeld, especially when positions are "contradictory to a certain extent."

While all of these things are true, the real issue is that he ignored the advice of Pentagon planners (note: some of the Pentagon generals have taken exception to this belief) and went in with far to few troops to occupy the country and when it did go bad, he could not conceptually change his thinking to fix his mistakes.  His memoir shows some other problems (and I am sure that Rice’s management style was frustrating to him) in the White House but at the end of the day, he pushed for a light weight invasion force that couldn’t control the country (or even Baghdad) when the insurgency started.

When conditions change

Warren Kinsella has a good post titled TEN POINTS: WHEN DEMOCRACY LOSES ALL MEANING that you should check out.  I was going to reply in his comments but after drafting up a reply, I decided to post here instead.

Looking back at the decision that was made to withdraw troops from Afghanistan in 2011, I thought it was a premature and arrogant one.  It seemed to underestimate the enemy, which everyone does.  The Allies thought the path from Normandy to Berlin would be over by Christmas of 1944, the Dieppe raid would have light casualties, and the Nazi’s thought Soviet resistance would collapse as they got closer to Moscow.  Later on the American’s were confident that the occupation of Iraq would be easy and orderly.  The public also shares this overconfidence.  In Ken’s Burn’s documentary The War, he points out that by late 1944, American support for WWII was waning, despite the fact that it was a war that was started by the attack on Pearl Harbor.

As in Iraq, western forces totally underestimated how long it would take for them to train the Afghanistan military.  I have no idea why it has taken so long, especially when you consider how quickly infantry was trained during the Second World War (Operation Torch was a year after Pearl Harbor and Guadalcanal was only six months or so later) but it was that way in Iraq as well.  It has been years of training for Afghanistan troops and there still are significant issues with their performance in the field and there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight.

The other variable was Iraq and the amount of troops it took to stabilize the country, troops and equipment that could have been used in Afghanistan.  The U.S. military is not the same military it was under Ronald Reagan.  Under Reagan, American military doctrine was that it could wage and win two wars at once (as in World War II).  That doctrine was changed to win one war decisively and contain the enemy in a secondary war until resources could be redeployed.  When Iraq was not won decisively, it still put Afghanistan into an extended holding pattern that changed the game for the Canadian troops there who bore the brunt of the fighting in a war that the Allies had not committed the resources to win.

So now what?  Canadians are in the middle of a war which has changed strategy several times and there is no clear blueprint to win.  While General Petraeus’s counter insurgency strategy worked in Iraq, will it work in Afghanistan?  Time will tell and I tend to think it will but that is a separate question.  The question that is burning with me is should Canadian troops be forced to pay for years of mismanagement of the war by staying there even longer?   It comes down to the Powell Doctrine, “Is there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglement?”.  I don’t know if I see one.

For me, Kinsella’s best argument is his fifth point

There’ll be no debate about any of this in Parliament, which is, you know, the Supreme Legislature of the People.  No one seems to give a shit about that.

I really don’t know if I think Canadian troops should stay in Afghanistan.  Part of me says that we need to see this through but how many times was that said during Vietnam (which is why Powell was so insistent with an exit strategy).  I do strongly believe that if there is an extension to the mission, that it is debated before Parliament.   Dissenting voices may not change the terms of engagement but they will be heard and that is a part of the democracy which our soldiers are trying to protect.  I know a lot of you will argue that if the Conservatives and the Liberals both agree, what is the point.  The point is that we are asking Canadian soldiers to risk their lives and in a parliamentary system, they are the ones that should be making the choice and being held responsible.

The Cost of the War In Afghanistan

Bob Hebert of the New York Times writes about the hidden cost of the Afghanistan war.

It’s a quaint notion, but true: with wars come responsibilities. The meat grinder of war takes its toll in so many ways, and we should be paying close attention to all aspects of it. Instead, we send our service members off to war, and once they’re gone, it’s out of sight, out of mind.

If we were interested, we might notice that record numbers of soldiers are killing themselves. At least 125 committed suicide through August of this year, an awful pace that if continued would surpass last year’s all-time high of 162.

Stressed-out, depressed and despondent soldiers are seeking help for their mental difficulties at a rate that is overwhelming the capacity of available professionals. And you can bet that there are even higher numbers of troubled service members who are not seeking help.

In the war zones, we medicate the troubled troops and send them right back into action, loading them up with antidepressants, sleeping pills, anti-anxiety drugs and lord knows what other kinds of medication.

One of the things we have long known about warfare is that the trouble follows the troops home. The Times published an article this week by Aaron Glantz, a reporter with The Bay Citizen news organization in San Francisco, that focused on the extraordinary surge of fatalities among Afghanistan and Iraq veterans. These young people died, wrote Mr. Glantz, “not just as a result of suicide, but also of vehicle accidents, motorcycle crashes, drug overdoses or other causes after being discharged from the military.”

An analysis of official death certificates showed that, from 2005 through 2008, more than 1,000 California veterans under the age of 35 had died. That’s three times the number of service members from California who were killed in Afghanistan and Iraq during the same period.

The Gamble

While at the cabin this week I finished off Chris Czajkowski’s book, Cabin at Singing River, Michael Lewis’ The Big Short, and Thomas Rick’s The Gamble. It was a good day to spend with three of my favorite authors on some pretty diverse topics.

Thomas E. Ricks, The Gamble Here are some thoughts that I had while reading The Gamble, some of them may be more inflammatory than others.

  • Where was the U.S. media on reporting some of the murders and rape of Iraqi civilians by American soldiers?  Part of what makes a democracy work is a rigorous and independent press and either the media in Iraq failed miserably or the controls placed upon them by the Pentagon made it impossible for them to do their jobs.  From what I remember, the deteriorating security of Iraq made it very dangerous for media during 2005 and 2006 to leave the Green Zone which would have lead to very poor reporting.
  • The book talks a lot about General David Petraeus (with good reason) but are you telling me that he was the only American general who understood that they were waging a counter insurgency, especially after the American failure in Vietnam?  It was a little unreal to read that it was Petraeus that brought all of the military historians together for discussions at Fort Leavensworth about how to fight a counter insurgency war.  The book describes a rather disorganized and poorly lead general staff that is really slow to learn from it’s mistakes and adapt to new realities.  As I type this statement, I realize it’s not the first time I have thought this and I think back to Len Deighton’s excellent book, Blood, Sweat and Folly where he describes both Germany, Italy, and England in the first couple of years of World War II seemingly both wanting to lose WWII.  So maybe the American generals are just following in the proud traditions of generals for centuries.
  • Leopard II tank Watching some media reports the last couple of weeks about the Canadian efforts in Kandahar sound a lot like Fiasco and the early part of Fiasco.  Canadian troops riding around on Leopard tanks while heading back to their base at night doesn’t sound like a counter insurgency campaign.  It’s times like this where I would love to hear Scott Taylor’s insights on how the Canadian military strategy is working there.  (he has some good thoughts here).  This paper states that Canada has taken a combative rather than a counter insurgency role in Afghanistan.
  • I am always amazed by the U.S. Army’s leadership to learn from best practices from other units.  Here was Petraeus leading the 101st Airborne Division and having a lot of success with insurgents by not using tanks and artillery while you have other units suffering increasing casualties while using heavy equipment.  Once locked into a strategy, American commanders only seemed to be capable of escalating their strategy.
  • Why does America (and other countries) promote generals who were not successful.  As Lt. Col. Paul Yingling says "A private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war."

So I am left with the idea that despite a very highly educated general corps, institutions like West Point, the Command and General Staff College, the National Defense University, National War College, U.S. Army School of Advanced Military Studies, and the War College, which have all increased the professionalism in the military but I also wonder if it has contributed to an over reliance on what they know about past wars rather than adapting to present ones.  Of course another issue is that like a lot of institutions that demand conformity, free thinking is probably bad for your career in the Army and other services so by the time one was able to make a difference in strategy and tactics, perhaps the ability to do so has been lost.

The book also left with the uncomfortable question of what would happen if someone else had been promoted in Petraeus’ place to Fort Leavensworth and instead of re-evaluating and reimagining what needed to be done in Iraq, they had stayed the course of withdrawing and handling the conflict with big weapons and increased violence. 

This was kind of an open ended post.  Leave me your thoughts in the comments below.

Without body, Semrau case open and shut

Some friends of mine are close friends with Rob Semrau and so I post this with reluctance but I think Scott Taylor makes some excellent points on why this case needs to be tried.

That said, there is a reason the military maintains its own justice system and that is to enforce a strict code of discipline on its members in an environment that inverts natural justice by its very existence. All religions preach a version of the commandment "Thou shalt not kill," yet that is exactly what our soldiers are trained and equipped to do. Hence the need for a separate judicial and moral yardstick that regulates and limits the use of lethal force on a battlefield.

As barbaric as warfare is, belligerents still aspire to play by such rule books as the Geneva Convention. Canada is a signatory to that convention and under its terms agreed to administer medical care to prisoners of war. It expressly forbids the execution of enemy wounded.

Many of those who support Semrau in the public debate point out, and correctly so, that the enemy we face in Afghanistan are illegal combatants that do not subscribe to the tenets of the Geneva Convention and, therefore, are not entitled to its protection. In the other camp are those who argue that the entire purpose for our intervention in Afghanistan would be defeated if we threw away our own principles by fighting like the Taliban.

If, in order to defeat the ruthless Taliban, we must become equally ruthless, what have we achieved in the long term?

If those soldiers who questioned Semrau’s action to the military police had strong enough misgivings about the incident to believe it required review, then the military justice system was correct to initiate proceedings.

This will be a precedent-setting case. It will be the first time in Canadian history that a soldier is charged with murder on a battlefield.

Keep in mind that, even under the most extreme circumstances, Canadian physicians are prohibited by law from ending a patient’s suffering. They can allow them to expire but cannot assist in the expedition of the death, so it will be interesting to see how the military court rules on this case.

While the gesture may have been a sincere act of humanity, there is nothing in Canada’s Criminal Code or military justice system which allows military personnel to play God in any circumstance.

Of course, without a body, or the identification of the victim to connect the accused to the crime, this should be a relatively easy case for Semrau’s defence lawyers.

‘Hello mum, this is going to be hard for you to read …’

Letters home from a 19 years old soldier from Afghanistan, including the one he wrote after he was killed in action on June 2, 2009.  The family gave the letters to the Independent to publish.

Cyrus Thatcher as a rifleman. He was killed on 2 June 2009

In the spring of this year, the 2nd Battalion, The Rifles deployed to Afghanistan. Halfway through the battalion’s tour, it has lost nine soldiers, with dozens injured.

Of those to have given their lives, four were teenagers. Here Rifleman Cyrus Thatcher, who was 19 when he was killed by an explosion near Gereshk seven weeks ago, tells his own story, through letters home and the last letter he left behind to bid farewell to his family – his mother Helena, father Robin and brothers Zac, 21, and Steely, 17.

Following are the words of a proud soldier described by his officers as possessing "a rucksack full of potential", and by his friends as a rascal always cracking jokes and helping to keep morale high. Most of all, they are the words of a young son to his mum, dad and brothers.

You can read all of his letters here.