Forget nukes — Propaganda and shame are terrorists’ WMDs of choice

My latest article for Blue Force Tracker:

There are a lot of horrible stories from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. My little brother, former Air Force Capt. Drew Peterson, told me one of the worst I’ve yet to hear.

He was riding in a convoy from Bagram Air Base to Kabul during a deployment to Afghanistan in August 2010.

This particularly dangerous stretch of road was known as “suicide alley” due to the frequency of Taliban improvised explosive device (IED) attacks. Most of the IEDs along suicide alley were physically connected to detonators by a thin copper “piano wire,” which, unlike IEDs remotely controlled via cell-phone, made them immune to jamming.

These hard-wired IEDs, however, required greater precision out of the attacker to time the explosion to passing vehicles.

So the best defense against attack was to drive fast and not stop. Not for anything.

“The Taliban would do anything to get us to stop,” Drew said. “But as soon as you stop or open your door, you’re dead.”

Drew was sitting in the back left seat that August day, behind the Afghan National Police (ANP) officer driving the Toyota Tacoma, which was the lead vehicle in the convoy. There were two other people in the cab, as well as an ANP officer in the back bed of the truck manning an AK-47 assault rifle.

Suddenly, there was the high-pitched squeal of brakes and the deep bass thump of impact. Drew instinctively turned to look forward, only to see a young girl, maybe five or six years old, split in two over the hood of the truck. “Half her body went over the truck, half her body went under it,” as he described it.

There was a lot of blood.

People inside the truck were yelling and cussing.

The guy in the front passenger seat was screaming, “Go, go, go.”

“We just ran over a fucking kid,” someone else said.

The Afghan driver fought through his instinct to stop the truck — he knew this was no accident.

The driver later explained that he saw a man kick the young girl into the road. This was a common tactic used by the Taliban to try and coax NATO and Afghan government convoys to slow down or stop so they could be destroyed by an IED or an ambush.

But the driver didn’t fall for the Taliban’s ploy, he punched the gas and kept the truck moving, thus saving the lives of my brother and everyone else inside from the Taliban ambush that was sure to follow, but never came.

“It fucked with our heads,” Drew later said. “But I’m sure if we stopped, they had some plans for us.”

Just to reiterate — the Taliban deliberately kicked a child in front of a truck to set up an ambush.

Such barbarity has the secondary effect of wounding the souls and consciences of the troops who witness such things.

Four years later, Drew’s sentences sometimes trail off as he explains that day, his mind replaying images and sounds for which there are no words.

“It definitely makes you question whether we are doing more harm than good over there,” Drew said. “Who are these people, the Taliban? These are not human beings. There is no bringing these people back. And if they are willing to do this to win, there is no bomb that can defeat that. How do you destroy someone that doesn’t care about being destroyed?”

Continue reading

While Iraqis welcome US airstrikes, experts debate whether airpower alone can turn the tide in Iraq

My latest article for Blue Force Tracker:

Iraqis on Friday widely welcomed President Barack Obama’s approval of targeted airstrikes against Islamist militants, even as the country braces for what may be a protracted and bloody counterinsurgency battle, and some U.S. military and terrorism experts question the ability of airpower alone to turn the tide of the war.

“People are really afraid in Baghdad from the possibility that ISIS could take over Baghdad,” said Yasir Alobaidi, a 37-year-old human rights lawyer who lives in Baghdad, speaking to Blue Force Tracker from Toronto Friday. “ISIS have no support among Iraqi people, and they are considered as a bunch of barbaric thugs that have a gloomy agenda that could turn Iraq into ash.”

Continue reading

For Syrian expat, hope fades as homeland moves toward ‘dark ages’

My story for Blue Force Tracker:

It was do or die time for the two Syrian brothers.

They had been hunkered down in a farm on the outskirts of the city of Deir Atiyah for almost two years, hoping to ride out the Syrian civil war there. One brother had his wife and 12-year-old daughter with him; the other was alone. They had managed to survive the ruthless bombings and artillery barrages from Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s forces, which had left Deir Atiyah in ruins. But the foursome was nearly out of food. Unless they found something to eat soon, they were all going to starve.

Yet, leaving the sanctuary of the farm within which they had sought shelter meant exposing themselves to the unpredictable dangers of a conflict that had devolved into an apocalyptic, Hobbesian state of total war.

Continue reading

Latest post for Blue Force Tracker

The moral absurdity of Hamas’s war

A quick primer on just and unjust wars.

Jus ad bellum: The justice of war.

Jus in bello: The justice in war.

The key idea is this — A war fought for a just cause can become a crime if it is fought in a criminal way.

Admittedly this is an academic exercise, but stick with me for a few minutes and consider the possibility that both Hamas and Israel are fighting for just reasons – jus ad bellum.

Palestinians claim Israelis booted them from their homeland, diminishing them to a refugee nation. They say they were subsequently oppressed and marginalized, and are fighting for what is rightfully and historically theirs.

Israelis say they are simply defending themselves from indiscriminate rocket and terrorist attacks, and after three generations of statehood, as well as historical claims, they have just as much a right to the land as the Palestinians do.

Both sides believe their cause is just, and there are merits and pitfalls to each argument. The distinguishing factor for a dispassionate third-party observer, therefore, is the consideration paid toward moral justice in the way the Israelis and Palestinians conduct war — jus in bello.

No matter where your opinion lands on the reasons for which Israelis and Palestinians fight, consider this very simple, yet revealing fact:

Every rocket fired by Hamas toward Israel is intended to kill civilians indiscriminately. Conversely, every missile, artillery barrage or rifle shot fired by Israeli forces is aimed toward a perceived military target with extraordinary efforts taken to limit civilian casualties.

[Continue to full article on Blue Force Tracker…]

Latest story for Blue Force Tracker

My latest piece for Blue Force Tracker:

Afghan drug trade grows despite $7.6 billion US counternarcotics effort

Despite a U.S. investment of about $7.6 billion in counternarcotics efforts in Afghanistan since 2002, the UN reports that Afghanistan’s overall production of the seed used to create opium has increased for three consecutive years.

According to a Wednesday report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), the overall land used for poppy-seed cultivation (used for opium production) went from 154,000 hectares in 2012 to 209,000 hectares in 2013—a 36% increase. […]

Visit Blue Force Tracker !!!

I’ve launched a military news, conflict journalism and foreign affairs website called “Blue Force Tracker.”

Our team of journalists include veterans of the military, intelligence agencies, diplomatic corps, as well as other journalists who share in our vision and have unique, real-world experience on the topics and regions about which they report.

The voice of veterans and those who value unbiased journalism is underrepresented in the media. We aim to change that.

We want to give the American people something similar. Our intent is to help close the growing civilian-military divide by giving our audience an unbiased, unfiltered and realistic account of what the military does and the world in which they operate — from writers who have “boots on the ground’ experience.

This project was inspired by my return to Afghanistan last year as a war correspondent, after a career serving as an Air Force special operations pilot. I realized that my reporting on the war went against the grain of most of the major media outlets. The reason was my background as a veteran.

That background spurred me to see the war differently than my civilian colleagues, and it also inspired the troops on the ground, who are inherently very distrustful of the media, to trust me and open up.

So check out Blue Force Tracker and help spread the message of what we’re trying to do!

On almost dying in Afghanistan

“Do you want me to grab you a can of Blue Monster?” Sgt. 1st Class Jeff Martin asked me as we left the Afghan National Army’s war room and stepped outside.

“Hell yeah,” I replied. “I love those things.”

We exited the joint U.S.-Afghan tactical operations center, known as a TOC, through a cypher-locked metal gate, which led out to the small U.S. Army camp attached to Camp Maiwand — the Afghan National Army’s compound at Forward Operating Base Shank.

Martin and I snaked through the jungle of plywood barracks, called hooches, passing by a reinforced bunker built as a shelter from Taliban mortar and rocket attacks.

Continue reading

The point is to hurt


6 a.m., April 30, 2011, at the trailhead of the Illinois and Michigan Canal State Trail: Three runners silently step up to the starting line through the morning fog. There are six spectators there to send them off; their arms folded against the early-morning chill. The starter gives the signal, and the runners shuffle off into the mist.

 Only 123 miles to go.

More than a year later, Tony Cesario shows up on the Chicago lakefront at 5 p.m. for his second 10-mile training run of the day. He does a few stretches and munches on an energy bar as groups of runners whiz by. Many are wearing spandex running tights with futuristic designs. Some have on bright neon Nike tank tops made of a special moisture-wicking material that is a spin-off of the space shuttle program. Almost all have IPod headphones in their ears.

Cesario’s running shorts are old, with a brand label that long ago rubbed off in the wash. The 48-year-old bank vice-president wears a wrinkled, cotton, Chicago Cubs T-shirt with cut-off sleeves. He takes off his wedding ring and weaves it through a crucifix necklace. “Sometimes my fingers swell if I’m dehydrated,” he offers, tucking the necklace back under his shirt. His shoes are from the bargain rack at Payless and he doesn’t listen to music when he runs.

Tony Cesario is an ultramarathon runner.

Unimpressed by the 26.2-mile challenge of the marathon, the father of two is part of a tribe of athletes who routinely complete races of 50, 100, even 200 miles. They’re called ultrarunners, and they have redefined the limits of what the human body can endure. And in a sport whose champions receive no glory or fame, the obvious question to ask is why?

The answer is hard to understand.

The point is to hurt.

Continue reading