- By Dan Lamothe
Dan Lamothe is an award-winning military journalist and war correspondent. He has written for Marine Corps Times and the Military Times newspaper chain since 2008, traveling the world and writing extensively about the Afghanistan war both from Washington and the war zone. He also has reported from Norway, Spain, Germany, the Republic of Georgia and while underway with the U.S. Navy. Among his scoops, Lamothe reported exclusively in 2010 that the Marine Corps had recommended that Marine Cpl. Dakota Meyer receive the Medal of Honor. This year, he was part of a team of journalists that exposed senior Marine Corps leaders' questionable involvement in legal cases, and then covering it up. A Pentagon investigation is underway in those cases.
By Dan Lamothe
Hamid Karzai’s brother doesn’t want to be the Afghan president. That from the Wall Street Journal’s Nathan Hodge, reporting out of Kabul. From his story: "The brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai Thursday effectively bowed out of the country’s presidential race and endorsed one of his rivals, shaking up the country’s election campaign a month before the historic vote. Qayum Karzai, the elder brother of the current president, announced in a news conference in Kabul that he would back the candidacy of former Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul. The move creates a powerful new bloc appealing to ethnic Pashtun voters, the country’s largest community. Afghanistan is slated to choose its new president April 5, in an election that is bitterly opposed by the Taliban-and that, if successful, would mark the first democratic transition of power in the nation’s history. President Karzai is not allowed by the constitution to run again." More here.
An airstrike kills five Afghan soldiers in eastern Afghanistan. The International Security Assistance Force that overseas NATO operations from Kabul confirmed the mistake, saying it would investigate. Afghan officials suggest it may have been a drone operation gone awry, but it isn’t clear. From the New York Times’ Rod Nordland: "An American airstrike killed five Afghan National Army soldiers and wounded eight more Thursday morning, according to Afghan and American officials. The attack took place at 3:20 a.m. in the Charkh district of Logar Province, and local officials attributed it to a drone strike. ‘We believe the strike was the result of poor coordination between the people on the ground and the operators of the drone,’ said Din Mohammad Darwish, a spokesman for the governor of Logar Province, which is in eastern Afghanistan, neighboring Kabul Province. ‘The area is frequented by insurgents both foreign and local, and drone strikes are carried out quite often in that part of Charkh,’ Mr. Darwish said. ‘The A.N.A. outpost was part of the security belt in the province.’ More here.
A new investigative report zeroes in on the Pentagon’s refusal to use DNA to identify fallen U.S. troops who were left overseas. Megan McCloskey of ProPublica rolls out a heartbreaking story this morning stretching more than 4,500 words about the U.S. military’s relative failure to bring home the remains of tens of thousands of troops who went missing during past conflicts. From her piece: "The Pentagon spends about $100 million a year to find men like Bud, following the ethos of ‘leave no man behind.’ Yet it solves surprisingly few cases, hobbled by overlapping bureaucracy and a stubborn refusal to seize the full potential of modern forensic science. Last year, the military identified just 60 service members out of the about 83,000 Americans missing from World War II, Korea and Vietnam, around 45,000 of whom are considered recoverable. At the center of the military’s effort is a little-known agency, the Joint Prisoners of War/Missing in Action Accounting Command, or J-PAC, and its longtime scientific director, Tom Holland. He alone assesses whether the evidence J-PAC has assembled is sufficient to identify a set of remains: A body goes home only if he signs off."
More from the piece: "Over Holland’s 19-year tenure, J-PAC has stuck with an outdated approach that relies primarily on historical and medical records even as others in the field have turned to DNA to quickly and reliably make identifications. Though finding missing service members can be difficult – some were lost deep in Europe’s forests, others in Southeast Asia’s jungles – Holland’s approach has stymied efforts to identify MIAs even when the military already knows where they are. More than 9,400 service members are buried as ‘unknowns’ in American cemeteries around the world. Holland’s lab has rejected roughly nine out of every 10 requests to exhume such graves.
Holland’s cautious approach is animated by a fear of mistakes, ProPublica reports. More from the story: "Our credibility is only as good as our last misidentification," he said in an interview. "It doesn’t matter that I’ve identified 500 people correctly. If I misidentify one, that’s what going to be the focus. That’s what’s going to be on the news. That is what is going to erode the credibility. That’s what I go home with every night." The story was co-reported with NPR and will be featured on its popular "All Things Considered" program, McCloskey tells Situation Report. Read the rest here.
Welcome to Thursday’s edition of Situation Report. I’m Dan Lamothe, and I’m filling in for Gordon Lubold for the remainder of the week. If you’d like to sign up to receive Situation Report, send him a note at firstname.lastname@example.org and he’ll stick you on. And if you like what you see, tell a friend. If you have a report you want teased, a piece of news, or a good tidbit, send it to us early for maximum tease, because if you see something, we hope you’ll say something — to Situation Report. One more thing: please follow me at @DanLamothe and Gordon at @glubold for delightful wit and national security analysis. You can also always reach me at email@example.com. Thank you kindly.
Chuck Hagel took a beating on Capitol Hill yesterday… but it wasn’t just about the crisis in Ukraine. The Pentagon’s proposed fiscal 2015 budget came under fire in the Senate as China announced it will boost its defense spending another 12.2 percent, to 131.6 billion, reinforcing it as the world’s section largest military. From a Foreign Policy story penned by me and Yochi Dreazen: "The plan was controversial from the start, with many lawmakers griping that the budget would result in a military that was too small, and too poorly equipped, to tamp down potential conflicts around the world or deal with an increasingly assertive Russia. China’s announcement Wednesday that it would be boosting its military budget by 12.2 percent in 2014, to $131.6 billion, simply fanned the flames. ‘I must say your timing is exquisite,’ Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain told Hagel during a heated Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. ‘Coming over here with a budget when the world is probably more unsettled since the end of World War II. The invasion of Crimea, Iran negotiations collapsed, China more aggressive in the South China Sea, North Korea fired more missiles in the last few days, Syria turning into a regional conflict.’
But the Pentagon’s new strategy document, the Quadrennial Defense Review, takes a more measured tone against China. More from our FP story: "Like its predecessor, the new QDR raises questions about Chinese ambition, but it frames it in part on how it could feed regional risks in the Pacific as it increasingly becomes an international business hub. ‘As nations in the region continue to develop their military and security capabilities, there is greater risk that tensions over long-standing sovereignty disputes or claims to natural resources will spur disruptive competition or erupt into conflict, reversing the trends of rising regional peace, stability, and prosperity,’ the new QDR said. ‘In particular, the rapid pace and comprehensive scope of China’s military modernization continues, combined with a relative lack of transparency and openness from China’s leaders regarding both military capabilities and intentions." The Pentagon’s response, then, is to "manage the competitive aspects of the relationship in ways that improve regional peace and stability consistent with international norms and principles.’"
Oh, those pricy dead defense programs. National Journal’s Sara Sorcher drills down on the Pentagon’s unfortunate habit of spending billions of dollars on programs, only to kill them later. Examples include the Marine Corps’ Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, the Army’s Ground Combat Vehicle, and the Air Force’s Airborne Laser. From her story: "That’s just a smattering. Other unfinished programs spiked by the Obama administration include the now-aborted VH-71 presidential helicopter, the Transformational Satellite Communications System, the National Polar-Orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System, the CG(X) Cruiser, the Joint Tactical Radio System Ground Mobile Radios, and the Medium Extended Air Defense System. That list alone totals more than $50 billion, and there are undoubtedly others tucked within the Pentagon’s labyrinthine budget. Regardless of the exact tally, the wasted funding does not necessarily mean it’s a mistake to kill the programs. Doing so can save big money in the long term. If the military believes it would be better served by a different option – or if the money is needed for a more crucial program – then continuing to invest in these expensive programs would have been throwing good money after bad." More here.
The Marine Corps will soon have its second living recipient of the Medal of Honor for actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Marine Corps Times’ Hope Hodge Seck broke the story yesterday, reporting that medically retired Cpl. William Kyle Carpenter will receive the nation’s highest valor award soon for covering a grenade on a rooftop in Afghanistan in November 2010 in an attempt to shield a fellow infantryman from the blast. From her story: "Carpenter, a 24-year-old medically retired corporal, will become the service’s third Medal of Honor recipient from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which date back to October 2001. The Marine Corps is finalizing plans with the White House for a ceremony in Washington, officials said. Marine Corps Times began making inquiries about the status of Carpenter’s case because the statute of limitations for Department of Navy Medal of Honor awards requires that a formal recommendation be made within three years of the combat action in question. Carpenter, the subject of two cover stories published by Marine Corps Times in 2012, also recently appeared in the national media. He was the subject of a January feature story in Reader’s Digest and a related appearance Jan. 27 on Katie Couric’s syndicated talk show."
The news was widely cheered by Marines, and for good reason. Carpenter, now a student at the University of South Carolina, is seen as humble and reflective about the experience, which cost him an eye and led to more than 30 surgeries to put his body back together. Your Situation Report correspondent got to know him while reporting a long-form profile on him for Marine Corps Times published in 2012, and found him surprisingly open about the whole thing, considering the horrific trauma sustained. Photographs of his scarred face have circulated in patriotic chain emails for years, and Carpenter’s family launched a Facebook page, Operation Kyle, providing updates on his recuperation. Read his profile piece and watch a video of him recalling the attack here. Oh – you can also find Carpenter on Twitter at @chiksdigscars, perhaps one of the greatest handles of all time.
But what about Peralta? The office of Rep. Duncan Hunter (R.-Calif.) released a statement to Situation Report praising Carpenter, but taking the Pentagon to task again for choosing not to award a Medal of Honor to a fallen Marine credited by the Navy Department with covering a grenade to shield fellow Marines from a grenade blast in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced Feb. 21 that he would not reopen Peralta’s case, citing inclusive evidence. A separate Washington Post story published the same raised questions about whether witnesses concocted the tale that Peralta covered the grenade to honor their fallen comrade, but numerous Marines who were there that day have pushed back against that strongly.
From Joe Kasper, Hunter’s spokesman: "Kyle Carpenter deserves the MoH — no doubt about it. If the Marine Corps made the recommendation, based on its own high standards, then that’s all Representative Hunter needs to know. Carpenter is a true inspiration and a worthy recipient of the highest award for combat valor. Though it’s hard in this case not to draw comparisons to Sgt. Rafael Peralta and what’s clearly a double-standard among the upper levels of the Defense Department. Secretary Hagel repeatedly referred to the ‘proof beyond a reasonable doubt MoH award standard,’ in justifying his decision on Peralta, but given the issues with the witnesses in that case, the responsible thing to do is refocus attention on the evidence itself, which weighs heavily in Peralta’s favor. In fact, a fragment of the grenade fuse was recovered from Peralta’s body armor, with other damage visible. The Secretary’s response was that the condition of the armor is consistent with a grenade detonating some distance to Peralta’s left. So in other words, the grenade detonated and the fuse traveled under the floor and somehow, through a miracle, lodged in Peralta’s armor. Go figure."
Henry Kissinger weighs in on Ukraine. In an opinion piece in the Washington Post, the famous former U.S. secretary of state focused on the nuances of the messy situation with Russia, and called for understanding. He led the State Department from 1973 to 1977, during the height of the Cold War. From his piece: "Public discussion on Ukraine is all about confrontation. But do we know where we are going? In my life, I have seen four wars begun with great enthusiasm and public support, all of which we did not know how to end and from three of which we withdrew unilaterally. The test of policy is how it ends, not how it begins. Far too often the Ukrainian issue is posed as a showdown: whether Ukraine joins the East or the West. But if Ukraine is to survive and thrive, it must not be either side’s outpost against the other – it should function as a bridge between them." More here.
Obama wants to use natural gas as a weapon against Putin. Coral Davenport and Steven Erlanger of the New York Times report that the White House plans to large quantities of the vast new natural gas supplies in the United States to Europe to undercut the influence of Russian President Vladimir Putin. From the story: "The crisis has escalated a State Department initiative to use a new boom in American natural gas supplies as a lever against Russia, which supplies 60 percent of Ukraine’s natural gas and has a history of cutting off the supply during conflicts. This week, Gazprom, Russia’s state-run natural gas company, said it would no longer provide gas at a discount rate to Ukraine, a move reminiscent of more serious Russian cutoffs of natural gas to Ukraine and elsewhere in Europe in 2006, 2008 and 2009. The administration’s strategy is to move aggressively to deploy the advantages of its new resources to undercut Russian natural gas sales to Ukraine and Europe, weakening such moves by Mr. Putin in future years. Although Russia is still the world’s biggest exporter of natural gas, the United States recently surpassed it to become the world’s largest natural gas producer, largely because of breakthroughs in hydraulic fracturing technology, known as fracking." More here.
Two days ago, Foreign Policy’s Keith Johnson posited in a story that Putin wasn’t likely to use energy as a weapon against Europe in the Ukraine crisis, in part because Russia also stood to lose a lot. From his story: "Fundamentally, energy trade between Russia and Europe is a two-way street. As much as European policymakers fret about dependence on Russian gas, Gazprom frets about dependence on the European market, which accounts for fully three-quarters of its export sales. More broadly, Moscow relies on oil and gas exports for one half of its federal budget. That makes a prolonged shut off of gas exports to Ukraine and the rest of Europe a dangerous proposition for Russian President Vladimir Putin." More here.