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Ask a Vet - Thanksgiving 2014
Author: TriSec    Date: 11/25/2014 11:29:13

Good Morning.

Today is our 4,797th day in Afghanistan, and our 159th day in Iraq.

We'll start this morning as we always do; with the latest casualty figures from our ongoing wars, courtesy of Antiwar.com:

US Military Deaths - Afghanistan: 2,350
Other Military Deaths - Afghanistan: 1,127
There have been 2 casualties in Iraq.

We find this morning's Cost of War passing through:

$ 1, 583, 196, 700, 000 .00

Last week, we ran an article about the poppy trade in Afghanistan. As we all know, that area of the world is the largest supplier of the opium poppy. It's been decades of effort to try to eradicate, or even just reduce the crop. But as I noted last week, it isn't working...and the Inspector General agrees.

WASHINGTON – The US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) says he is investigating the Pentagon's efforts to spark that country's economic development, which cost between $700 million and $800 million and "accomplished nothing."

SIGAR's chief, John Sopko, told reporters Tuesday, that the agency has opened an "in-depth review" into the Task Force for Business and Stability Operations (TFBSO), a Defense Department unit aimed at developing war zone mining, industrial development and fostering private investments.

"We have gotten serious allegations about the management and mismanagement of that agency, as well as a policy question about what they were doing and whether they should have existed," Sopko said.

More broadly, Sopko faulted the US government's economic development efforts in Afghanistan as "an abysmal failure," saying it lacked a single leader, a clear strategy or accountability. An avenue of inquiry for SIGAR's investigation into TFBSO could be Afghanistan's underdeveloped mining industry.

"We have seen hit-and-miss efforts to develop the [Afghan] economy," Sopko said of the US. "You, the development experts, should have had a plan to develop the economy and you haven't, so now we're stuck."

Untapped mineral wealth in Afghanistan is estimated at $1 trillion, but Sopko noted that Afghanistan has only recently passed mineral laws and legal gaps make investment unattractive. Critics say the law lacks transparency regarding contracts and ownership, and strong rules for open and fair bidding.

The task force did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Of course, that's not the only money trap in the Himalayas. It's been over a decade of war; things go to Afghanistan and they don't come out, costing us untold time and treasure in the process. As we wind down the war (maybe), there are more reports coming out about what a pit the place has become.

There's the half-billion dollar aircraft fleet that sits unused on the cracked tarmac. There's the $230 million in spare vehicle parts that are unaccounted for. There are the handful of waste incinerators, priced at a few million dollars each, that have never burned much beyond holes in taxpayer pockets.

When the U.S. embarked on its massive war fighting and nation building effort in Afghanistan, there was bound to be waste and fraud, but a look back at the reports and letters compiled in 2013 by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) shows U.S. taxpayer money dumped down the drain, sometimes tens of millions at a time, more than a decade since the first American troops landed in the Southwest Asian nation.

"Over the last year we have uncovered countless instances of waste, fraud, and abuse," Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko told ABC News. "Time and time again, we have found the reconstruction effort plagued by problems of poor planning and poor oversight… Unfortunately, all too often we are not asking the simple questions before we pump money into a project, such as, do the Afghans want it? Do they need it? Can they sustain it? And can we oversee it? We can get this right, but we need to be diligent with taxpayer funds and individuals need to be held accountable."

What follows in this report are examples of waste SIGAR said it uncovered on the ground in Afghanistan in military construction and general reconstruction projects – examples the Pentagon insists are not emblematic of America's effort in the war-torn nation.

A spokesperson for the Defense Department acknowledged the "challenges" presented by helping to build a country in the midst of a war, but said that while "there have been some instances of underperforming projects, these are vastly outweighed by the positive cumulative impact of the wide array of successful projects."

Of course, with all that money disappearing overseas, one would hope that at least the Afghans might get some benefit - surely their army must have buildings, equipment, food, decent uniforms, and all the things they'll need to defend themselves once we finally pull out? Yeah, not so much.

KABUL — With a collective belch of black smoke, the line of old Soviet tanks rattles to life. No two vehicles have the same fading paint scheme, and some still feature the insignia of Afghanistan’s communist government of the 1980s.

Fenders are bent and rusted. In the treads of one tank are the tangled coils of the last barbed-wire fence it drove through. Amid the haze and the clanking of metal tracks, the hulking machines barely look ready to drive around the block, let alone fight a war.

Once a common fixture of the Soviet invasion and, later, the civil war between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance, tanks are now only rarely used in today’s unconventional war in Afghanistan.

But from a base on the outskirts of the capital city of Kabul, a few hundred Afghan soldiers still ride rusting museum pieces into battle against the Taliban.

Here at the 111th Division’s base, the Afghan National Army’s lone tank battalion has about 44 T-55 and T-62 tanks that are in some kind of working order. About 20 to 25 can actually be started and used at any one time. In early July at least eight tanks were deployed against Taliban forces in nearby Kapisa province, officials said.

“These tanks are useful for the terrain of Afghanistan because Afghanistan is mostly a mountainous country,” said Col. Ali Reza, commander of the division’s quick-reaction force. “And if the enemy is stationed in the higher areas, these tanks are quite useful to eliminate them.”

The T-55, first introduced in the early 1950s, was a mainstay of Warsaw Pact forces through much of the Cold War. Its simplicity, reliability and powerful 100 mm gun also made it popular with Third World armies that found it difficult to maintain and operate more sophisticated machines. The T-62, a development of the T-55 with a smoothbore 115 mm gun, followed in the 1960s.

Afghanistan operated hundreds of each variant during the 1980s and ‘90s.

But the country has not acquired any new tanks since the civil war that toppled the Soviet-backed regime and led to the Taliban takeover, Reza said. After the Taliban were pushed out by the U.S.-led coalition, international military aid has largely supplied lighter armored vehicles rather than tanks.

Troops with NATO’s International Security Assistance Force often cite maintenance and logistics as one of the greatest failings of the Afghan military. But the mechanics who have kept the Soviet-era rust-buckets of the tank battalion running with nothing more than scavenged parts give an indication of what Afghan forces can do.

Still, it’s a war of attrition. There are only so many leftover tanks to raid for spare parts, and even ammunition is running low, battalion officers said.

And since this is supposedly a veteran's column, we'll finish up today with a story about actual veterans. Yet another bill is making it's way through Congress to address veteran suicide. Although it's probably too late already, seeing that they've broken up for Thanksgiving break and won't be back until when? Perhaps the incoming Congress might be keen on taking up action for our veterans. Perhaps monkeys might fly out of my butt, too.

WASHINGTON — A proposed review and expansion of VA suicide prevention programs is gaining steam in Congress during the lame duck session.

Mothers of two servicemembers who committed suicide were set to testify late Wednesday in support of the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention Act in the Senate, where a group of Republicans and two Democrats introduced the bill this week. House lawmakers were slated to review their version of the legislation later in the day.

It was a strong signal that lawmakers might consider passage before the close of the congressional session at the end of the year, according to Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, which has pushed the legislation. The bill mandates new resources and an outside review of VA efforts to reduce what the military calls a suicide epidemic, especially among younger vets returning from the past 13 years of war.

“While this bill won’t fix everything, it is a big step in the right direction,” said Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., ranking member on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee during the bill hearing.

It is estimated that about 22 veterans commit suicide each day.

Burr joined fellow Republicans including Arizona Sen. John McCain and Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., to introduce the bill on Monday.

Susan Selke, the mother of Marine veteran Clay Hunt, spoke to reporters before she was slated to testify in front of Burr’s committee, saying she met privately with VA Secretary Bob McDonald on Tuesday about the legislation and was told he would support it.

The bill requires the independent review of suicide prevention programs to determine which work and what changes should be made. It also would create a new website to link veterans with mental health care services and provide incentives for psychiatrists to join the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Hunt survived a brush with a sniper’s bullet during combat in Iraq and became an advocate for suicide prevention. But he struggled with post-traumatic stress and survivor’s guilt, and took his own life in 2011 at the age of 28.

Selke, who was to testify with the mother of a Vermont National Guard combat vet, said she just learned of a new suicide among members of her son’s old unit, and that suicide has now claimed as many victims of the unit as combat did.

Alexander Nicholson, legislative director for IAVA, said the Clay Hunt Act is a first step toward stemming the deaths and figuring out how to improve the VA mental health care system.

So this Thanksgiving, if the weather is good, make sure your flag is up...and take a moment to hoist a glass in honour of our fighting men and women, wherever they may be.


17 comments (Latest Comment: 11/25/2014 19:27:07 by Mondobubba)
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