Congress Bucks Air Force Again, Keeps A-10 Flying

Two American A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft taxi toward the end of the Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada runway for a training mission, December 10, 2010
Two American A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft taxi toward the end of the Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada runway for a training mission, December 10, 2010 (USAF/Michael R. Holzworth)

The A-10 close support aircraft, better known as the “Warthog,” is one of the most prized planes for veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The jet — which has the ability to fly low to the ground, loiter over a target for a considerable period of time, take hits from enemy ground fire and coordinate rescue missions for downed airmen — is one of the more versatile in the United States Air Force. Countless lives were undoubtably saved thanks to the unique capabilities of the A-10, particularly in Afghanistan where troops were often stationed in hard-to-reach, rural, mountainous terrain close to or surrounded by insurgent territory.

Washington’s spending problems have gotten so bad, however, that the Air Force is attempting to get rid of the A-10 fleet altogether.

For the third year in a row, Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James and the Defense Department have argued that the Warthog is too expensive to maintain and not suited for the current operational environment overseas. Tens of thousands of American forces are no longer deployed in the Middle East and tasked with performing street patrols in insurgent-invested neighborhoods. Rather, they are locked behind big bases performing missions that are largely focused on training, advising and equipping local security forces to do the fighting against insurgent and terrorist groups themselves.

“It’s not about not liking or not wanting the A-10,” General Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, said earlier this year. “It’s about some very tough decisions that we have to make to recapitalize an Air Force for the threat ten years from now.”

The problem, in other words, is money. Sequestration, which mandates artificial cuts in all defense and domestic spending, is forcing the armed services to make some difficult decisions. Getting rid of the A-10 and making room for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is seen as a much better investment for the warfighter of the future.

Members of Congress disagree. Despite the Air Force’s request to retire the Warthog fighter, the House and Senate Armed Services Committees have insisted on keeping the plane flying for three years in a row. The National Defense Authorization Act that was passed by the House last month and approved by the Senate several weeks ago prohibits the Air Force from using any money to “retire, prepare to retire, or place in storage or on backup aircraft inventory status” any A-10 jet.

Under the legislation, manning levels and crews for the A-10 fleet are kept at their present level and the Air Force is required to keep at least 171 of the planes available for combat missions on short notice.

The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Mac Thornberry, argues that it makes little sense to cut an aircraft that is currently in service in the Middle East. The majority of Congress appears to agree.

Whether or not the Obama Administration will be able to convince Congress to acquiesce in the A-10 drawdown will depend in large measure on the ability of the Air Force to field a replacement. The F-35, a fifth-generation fighter aircraft that is capable of doing close air support missions, is supposed to be the replacement. But this expensive new weapons system has experienced its fair share of setbacks.

From a wargame that showed the F-35 rendered ineffective against Chinese and Russian fighters, to mishaps with the engine and deficiencies in the software program, the F-35 program has caused a lot of concern among members of Congress and government watchdogs which are quick to call out the initiative’s soaring cost overruns. If the F-35 was scheduled to be operational in a short period of time or was already operational, then the A-10 community would probably lose some of its influence and power. But this isn’t the case.

As long as the F-35 struggles to get off the ground and the A-10 continues to perform well, Congress will likely buck the Air Force and keep funding the fleet. But that also means budgeters in the Pentagon have to go back to the drawing board to determine where they can find the billions of dollars in savings that same Congress mandated them to make.

Data Surveillance Debate Heats Up Again in Senate

View of the United States Capitol in Washington DC, August 4, 2013
View of the United States Capitol in Washington DC, August 4, 2013 (Jeffrey Zeldman)

Last fall, reformers of the surveillance system run by America’s National Security Agency were dealt a tough blow. After extensive negotiations between lawmakers, concessions granted from the intelligence community, agreement with telecommunications companies and a political environment in Washington that was conducive to eliminating the bulk collection of telephone metadata by the government, reform advocates were unable to defeat a Republican filibuster to proceed in the Senate. The USA Freedom Act — which would have transferred the storage of metadata from the government to private telecoms — was just two votes shy of the sixty votes needed to break the filibuster.

Undeterred, those pushing for changes in how the NSA picks up data on ordinary Americans are trying to get the issue back on the agenda. Read more

America Declares End of Afghanistan War

United States Marines exit a helicopter at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, October 27, 2014
United States Marines exit a helicopter at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, October 27, 2014 (USMC/Sergeant/Dustin D. March)

American president Barack Obama called it an historic moment and commanders running the war referred to it as the final step on the road to Afghanistan’s full independence.

On Wednesday, the thirteen-year operation that the United States called Operation Enduring Freedom passed into history, replaced with a mission that consists purely of advising and assisting Afghan security forces and launching occasional counterterrorism raids on Al Qaeda or Taliban targets.

“Today’s ceremony in Kabul marks a milestone for our country,” President Obama wrote in a statement.

For more than thirteen years, ever since nearly 3,000 innocent lives were taken from us on 9/11, our nation has been at war in Afghanistan. Now, thanks to the extraordinary sacrifices of our men and women in uniform, our combat mission in Afghanistan is ending, and the longest war in American history is coming to a responsible conclusion.

Yet while the politicians in Washington are celebrating that the termination of combat operations, the Afghan and Western soldiers who remain will still be heavily engaged through 2015.

Seen from America, the war may be over. But it really isn’t. The Taliban continue to push into their traditional stronghold in the south and the Afghan security forces continue to suffer a casualty rate one top American commander described as “not sustainable in the long term.”

Therein lies the problem for Obama and his successor. By virtue of the Taliban’s tenacity and the existence of a strategic partnership agreement with the government in Kabul, America will remain in the middle of the action for at least another decade.

All is not well in Afghanistan, even if the foreign troops have determined that the environment is safe enough to scale back.

The Afghans, particularly the police, have born the brunt of the fighting and experienced an increase in armed battles with insurgents who are prepared to roll into the very areas that were cleared by Afghan and Western troops only three or four years ago.

The United Nations mission in Afghanistan has documented (PDF) a 19 percent increase in civilian casualties compared to 2013. Afghan officials say approximately 5,000 members of the army and police have been killed in action throughout last year, making it one of the deadliest in the entire war.

The numbers could get worse now that foreign troops are no longer fighting on the frontlines and American assets and enablers such as air support, drones and medivac are preparing to fly back to Kuwait for another engagement in Iraq.

Attrition within the Afghan army makes the situation worse. According to a quarterly report (PDF) from the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, more than 36,000 personnel were dropped from the force between August 2013 to September 2014.

Attrition, retention, funding, retaining control over areas in remote regions and the proliferation of poppy cultivation in the southern and western provinces have all been incredible hinderances to the Afghan government’s ability to hold a monopoly on violence. The presence of 12,000 NATO trainers in 2015, half of whom are due to withdraw the following year, may give the Afghan forces a psychological boost, in addition to a crucial training component for an army that continues to battle an insurgency conducting increasingly bold attacks. The American combat mission is over but combat will occur throughout 2015 and probably even after all American troops have left the country in another two years.

Despite Bad Press, CIA Still Popular with Americans

A protest outside the White House in Washington DC, January 11, 2013
A protest outside the White House in Washington DC, January 11, 2013 (Justin Norman)

On January 27, 1975, when it had emerged that the intelligence community was spying on American citizens at home and destabilizing foreign governments abroad, the United States Senate established what would later be referred to as the Church Committee. The special investigative body, led by Senator Frank Church of Idaho, would delve into every dark corner of the intelligence business with three objectives: shedding light on abuses that were committed in the past, preventing other abuses from occurring and generating a movement that would coerce the government into reorganizing America’s intelligence agencies.

By the time the Church Committee concluded its report in May the following year — a report aided by eight hundred witnesses, millions of previously classified documents and hundreds of hearings — the findings were so shocking to ordinary Americans that President Gerald R. Ford issued a wide-ranging executive order to change the way the intelligence community did its work. The Central Intelligence Agency was no longer authorized to plan and conduct assassinations of political leaders in other countries; the Federal Bureau of Investigation was prohibited from opening the mail of ordinary Americans to monitor their activity; planting government agents in protest movements to influence their behavior was now considered taboo; and electronic surveillance against Americans could only occur with the explicit approval of the attorney general.

Congress also used the Church Committee report as justification for creating a permanent select committee overseeing the activities of the intelligence community, a degree of legislative involvement that, at the time, was opposed by the CIA, FBI and National Security Agency as overt interference in their affairs.

Nearly forty years later, the CIA is once again in Congress’ crosshairs. After a five-year, $40 million dollar study reviewing the agency’s rendition, detention and interrogation program of suspected terrorists — a program that President Barack Obama abolished during his first week in office — the CIA leadership is experiencing perhaps its worst period of negative press since the mid 1970s.

The revelations embodied in the Senate report, including the use of waterboarding, extreme sleep deprivation and prolonged stress positions on detainees, took many Americans by surprise. The study was so potentially damaging to the agency’s reputation that CIA director John Brennan gave a news conference in which he rebutted the Senate committee’s main conclusions — a rare move for the leader of one of the world’s most secretive spy services.

Yet, although the CIA has been forced to deal with several weeks of bad press coverage, there is no indication that the Senate committee report released in early December will prompt significant reform inside the agency’s ranks. As Mark Mazzetti of The New York Times reported last weekend, the study “is unlikely to significantly change the role the CIA now plays in running America’s secret wars.”

Indeed, rightly or wrongly, the CIA will continue to receive the benefit of the doubt from most Americans, even if mistakes were made.

One only needs to look at the same Senate report to see how bullish the American public has become since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. While 49 percent of Americans considers the CIA’s interrogation of terrorist suspects to be torture, 53 percent of those polled by The Washington Post and CBS News believes enhanced interrogation techniques produce intelligence that would not normally be produced through other means.

In its own survey, the Pew Research Center found that 53 percent of Americans thought the CIA’s methods justified with only 29 percent saying they weren’t.

From the polls it seems Americans are willing to back their intelligence services if it means keeping the country safe — a general trend of public support that the CIA, FBI and NSA did not experience when the Church Committee was set up.

This is not only about waterboarding and sleep deprivation. The CIA receives strong public support on issues ranging from the use of drones to the multiyear effort to locate and kill Al Qaeda’s former leader, Osama bin Laden. Sending unmanned aerial vehicles into another country to shoot a terrorist from the sky is an especially controversial and divisive topic in much of the rest of the world. Americans, however, largely see the tactic as a useful and effective way to protect their nation from attack, degrade the leadership capability of terrorist organizations and send a message to terrorists around the world that the United States has a vast intelligence arsenal as its disposal.

This support is so widespread that Gallup registered a whopping 65 percent approval for using airstrikes in other countries to go after individual terrorists.

With numbers like these, the CIA leadership can comfortably operate in the belief that the vast majority of American citizens recognizes how difficult its job is. Defended by an administration that has used the CIA to prosecute its war against Islamic terrorist organizations, backed by congressional Republicans who view the intelligence community as America’s first line of defense and popular with more Americans than not, the agency can look toward the future without fear of reliving the 1970s.

Like the Church Committee, the members and staff of the Senate Select Committee report on enhanced interrogation hoped their efforts would result in a national discussion about the proper balance between liberty and security. Judging from the polls, though, the average American still puts his faith in the men and women of the clandestine services.

Director Defends CIA Against Senate Torture Claims

President Barack Obama speaks with CIA director John Brennan at the White House in Washington DC, February 18, 2010
President Barack Obama speaks with CIA director John Brennan at the White House in Washington DC, February 18, 2010 (White House/Pete Souza)

After two straight days of pummeling by human rights advocates, Senate Democrats and most of the American media, CIA director John Brennan took to the airwaves on Thursday to respond to a much-awaited Senate Intelligence Committee report about the agency’s Rendition, Detention and Interrogation (RDI) program under the George W. Bush administration.

The roughly five-hundred page summary of the document, which into the thousands of pages, paints the picture of a rogue intelligence agency using techniques that most Americans, indeed most people around the world, would consider torture: dousing detainees with cold water, using waterboarding during interrogation sessions and forcing prisoners to stay awake for almost a week. The Senate report makes the case that the CIA not only lied to Congress about the use of these methods but provided misleading information to the Bush White House and the Justice Department, both about the intelligence that was derived from the enhanced interrogations and the quality of that intelligence.

John Brennan, a CIA veteran of over three decades, spoke to reporters on Thursday and provided a staunch defense of the agency’s conduct during the program’s seven years.

The enhanced interrogation techniques, Brennan argued, were not only approved by the Justice Department and the White House but endorsed by the very members of Congress who are equating America’s spies to torturers.

“Our reviews indicate that the detention and interrogation program produced useful intelligence that helped the United States thwart attacks, capture terrorists and save lives,” said Brennan. And no, the CIA did not deliberately mislead the White House, the Congress or the Justice Department about what they were doing, he added.

Brennan’s public remarks mirrored a written rebuttal (PDF) the CIA wrote in July of last year but released this week in response to the Senate report. It contends that the use of enhanced interrogation techniques, principally waterboarding, was crucial in foiling terrorist plots against Americans and allowed the United States to discover information about the Al Qaeda structure and leadership that contributed to the terrorist group’s demise.

The rebuttal is passionate about Senate Democrats’ conclusion that the agency lied to elected officials, calling the allegations unsubstantiated based on the record. If the CIA was lax in its briefings to members of Congress, it says the blame lays with the White House. “CIA did not have the unilateral authority to brief individuals or groups independent of presidential direction as conveyed by the national security advisor,” it claims.

Despite these inaccuracies, Director Brennan and the CIA leadership did in fact admit mistakes.

The early implementation and supervision of the RDI program was sloppy. The agency was forced to create an interrogation program immediately after the September 11, 2001 attacks on President George W. Bush’s orders. The CIA had no experience at operating a worldwide detention program, nor did it have the personnel to interrogate captured terrorists in a professional manner. As Brennan said, “the program was uncharted territory for the CIA and we were not prepared.”

Brennan needed to address the Senate report on torture in public — not only to vouch for a workforce that feels jaded by the public criticism of its past activities but also in order to drill home the point that the CIA is a learning organization that will use its past to better itself in the years ahead. He tries to tow the line between acknowledging mistakes and supporting the Obama Administration’s negative judgment of the enhanced interrogation program, all the while defending the dedication of CIA employees who were (and are) placed in extraordinarily difficult positions. Whether or not the director retained the confidence of his workers, however, is a distant second to retaining the agency’s credibility and support from the American people.

With Mubarak Acquitted, Egypt’s Arab Spring Is Over

A protester holds up a photograph of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in Cairo, June 2, 2012
A protester holds up a photograph of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in Cairo, June 2, 2012 (Mosa’ab Elshamy)

Nearly four years ago, on January 25, 2011, millions of brave and patriotic Egyptians took over the streets of Cairo and demanded a change in the way they were governed. “The people want the fall of the regime” was heard around the country. It became the slogan of those wanting a future free of lengthy and arbitrary prison terms, unaccountable and corrupt government and a security state that administered the most brutal of beatings to even the slightest form of dissent.

The revolution culminated in the resignation of Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak who was pushed aside by his own army after eighteen days of protests and after 29 years in power.

Today, the political climate couldn’t be more different. Egypt, for all intents and purposes, has regressed back in time to the pre-Tahrir Square period. What passes for democracy and human rights in Egypt is a joke to even Cairo’s strongest allies in the West. The current Egyptian government, voted in by over 90 percent of Egyptian voters in January, boils down to a mix of military men and former Mubarak advisors, all of whom share the goal of cracking down on any challenge to their authority.

Since the military ousted Mohamed Morsi, Mubarak’s Muslim Brotherhood successor, tens of thousands of Egyptians have been arrested for a variety of offenses that would pass as nonviolent protest in Europe and North America. The lack of an Egyptian parliament has allowed President Abdul Fatah Sisi and his administration to pass laws that limit the freedom to express grievances peacefully, including a draconian anti-terrorism law whose provisions are so ambiguous than even a peaceful protester could theoretically be arrested on terrorism charges.

As if Egyptians needed reminding that the revolution has effectively been reversed, Mubarak, his former interior minister and six security commanders were acquitted on Saturday on charges of killing hundreds of demonstrators during the “Arab Spring” uprising.

A panel of three judges threw the case out on a technicality, citing an expired statute of limitations and preventing the prosecution from levying any murder charges on the former president and his associates.

With a single ruling, the top tier of the former Egyptian leadership was declared free of any culpability related to the killing of protesters across the country during those eighteen days in early 2011.

Speaking to a private television station after the verdict, Mubarak said he was confident all along that he would be exonerated. “I never did anything wrong,” he said, “so I just waited for what the court would present and I was declared innocent.”

For the thousands of people that lost family members during Egypt’s iconic Tahrir Square protests, one can only imagine the smugness of Mubarak getting on their nerves.

The question is where Egypt goes from here. The Mubarak verdict may have been unwelcome to millions across the country but that doesn’t mean that they are angry enough to go back to the streets. After close to four years of political turmoil, multiple parliaments, multiple presidents and a growing terrorism problem that has claimed the lives of hundreds of soldiers and police officers since last year, Mubarak is no longer the primary issue. Restoring a semblance of good governance, stability and economic growth trumps anything that would have happened to the former president.

Ironically, it is the military-backed government of former general Sisi that will be responsible for meeting those expectations.

Afghanistan Finally Signs Security Agreement

Afghan president Ashraf Ghani shakes hands with America's secretary of state, John Kerry, in Kabul, July 11
Afghan president Ashraf Ghani shakes hands with America’s secretary of state, John Kerry, in Kabul, July 11 (Department of State)

Afghanistan’s new president, Ashraf Ghani, has managed to be more productive in one day than his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, was for months. After nearly a year of stalling by Karzai’s administration over concerns about excessive civilian casualties, Afghanistan and the United States finally ratified a Bilateral Security Agreement on Tuesday — a document that took Afghan and American negotiators a year to draft and one that was the subject of so much confusion and frustration for the Obama Administration this year.

Rather than signing the agreement, Karzai had pledged to leave the task to his successor. So when Ghani and his challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, formed a unity government after a disputed presidential election this summer, the new administration in Kabul signed the security document on its first official day of business.

A lengthy accord riddled with diplomatic language, the agreement allows the United States to keep close to 10,000 troops in Afghanistan for the explicit purpose of advising and training the Afghan military and pursuing what remains of Al Qaeda’s leadership in the country. The Americans will have access to nine bases spread across Afghanistan in order to ensure that advising and training activities are as widely distributed as possible. The United States will have an obligation “to seek funds on a yearly basis to support the training, equipping, advising and sustaining of” the Afghan army and national police and American troops will have full immunity from prosecution in Afghan courts. If Afghan authorities detain an American for whatever reason, the Afghan government must hand that soldier over to his own government.

For the Obama Administration, the ratification is both a political achievement and an assurance to its critics that America will finish what it started thirteen years ago. With Iraq’s security in absolute chaos only three years after Western armies pulled out, the security agreement with Afghanistan will provide the United States with the tools and resources that are needed to prevent a similar cataclysmic outcome from occurring there.

Although long-term arrangements have now been made for American forces, it will ultimately be up to the Afghan army and police to continue taking charge of their own security. Far from being in a frontline combat role, American personnel who remain in Afghanistan after this year will serve as a force multiplier — not a force replacement — for the Afghan troops. The new government of Ashraf Ghani will be severely tested by the Taliban insurgency which continues to chip away at central government control in the east and south and remains altogether a formidable force in the remote provinces along the border with Pakistan.

Given the frenetic pace of casualties the Afghan army has endured over the past year, the new government in Kabul will need all the help it can get from the United States and NATO allies to hold the Taliban at bay and prevent the insurgency from encroaching on the country’s major cities. The Bilateral Security Agreement is the blueprint for how that assistance will be given.