TIME Military

Drumbeats of Possible War with Iran Grow Louder

Senate Armed Services Hearing on Iran/JCPOA
Samuel Corum / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images From left, Secretary of State John Kerry, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and General Martin Dempsey defend the Iran deal at Wednesday’s Senate hearing.

Senate hearing highlights growing skepticism over wisdom of nuclear deal

You could almost see the U.S. and Iran drawing slowly closer to war Wednesday, as dubious lawmakers, including a pair of Republican senators seeking their party’s presidential nomination, grilled top Obama Administration officials over the pending nuclear deal with Tehran.

The reason is pretty simple: there appears to be a growing push among lawmakers, and their constituents, against the recent agreement hammered out by the U.S. and four other nations to restrain Iran’s push toward nuclear weapons (a CNN poll out Tuesday says 52% of Americans oppose the pact).

If the deal falls apart, Administration witnesses warned the Senate Armed Services Committee that Iran would have a fast track toward a nuclear arsenal. If the mullahs try to take advantage of that opening—something expected by U.S. intelligence—all signs suggest the U.S. will go to war to thwart their atomic ambitions.

Language from both the Administration and senators made clear there’s a hair-trigger mentality when it comes to Iran. But how much of that was bluster, designed to win over the other side regarding the deal’s merit, was difficult to plumb. What was clear is how complicated the polarized U.S. debate over the deal has made winning Washington’s approval.

Testifying for the Administration were Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Secretary of State John Kerry, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.

Carter said the Pentagon is “continuing to advance our military capabilities that provide all options…should Iran walk away from its commitments under this deal.” He added, with a bit of martial swagger, that any Iranian aggression would trigger “an overwhelming array of forces into the region, leveraging our most advanced capabilities, married with sophisticated munitions that put no target out of reach.”

Translation: “advance capabilities” means the U.S. Air Force’s B-2 bomber, the only airplane that can carry “sophisticated munitions that put no target out of reach”—the 15-ton Massive Ordnance Penetrator, specifically designed to burrow into Iranian mountains and destroy nuclear-production facilities.

Two of the most startling questions put to the witnesses by deal doubters came from senators seeking the GOP presidential nomination. Opposition to the deal makes them look pro-military and pro-Israel (which opposes the deal), as well as anti-Obama—a political hat trick for those seeking to appeal to Republican primary voters.

Lindsey Graham’s question came like a bolt out of the blue. “Could we win a war with Iran?” the South Carolinian asked Carter. “Who wins the war between us and Iran? Who wins? Do you have any doubt who wins?”

“No,” Carter responded. “The United States wins the war.” Neither he nor Graham explained how the U.S. might win in Iran, after it has failed to win in Afghanistan and Iraq since invading those two nations more than a decade ago.

Top Administration Officials Testify To Senate Armed Services Committee Hearing On Military Balance In Mid East
Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images“Could we win a war with Iran?” asks Senator Lindsey Graham, alongside Senator Ted Cruz.

Ted Cruz of Texas lobbed an electromagnetic-pulse weapon into the middle of the four-hour hearing. “Do you agree that an EMP detonated by Iran in the atmosphere could kill tens of millions of Americans?” he asked Moniz. EMP weapons have become a bugaboo in certain conservative circles over concern that a high-altitude nuclear explosion over the U.S. could fry much of the nation’s electronics. Moniz conceded an EMP could be “a very potent weapon.”

Much of the session was less about nuclear physics than political theater. Republicans spent much of the session detailing Tehran’s “malign” activities, ranging from sponsoring terrorism to threatening to destroy Israel. The Administration’s witnesses acknowledged Iran’s perfidy. But they argued that the deal, which the U.S., Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia struck with Iran after years of negotiations, is the surest way to delay, if not derail, Iran’s nuclear quest.

TIME Military

U.S. Prepares to Fly Deeper into Syrian Civil War

Operation Northern Watch Enforces No-Fly Zone
Air Force / Getty Images A U.S. Air Force F-16 leaves a Turkish base in 2002 for a mission over Iraq. Soon they are likely to be flying similar assignments over Syria.

ISIS is the target, but U.S. pilots could also be at risk

The U.S. flew “no-fly zones” over northern and southern Iraq for more than a decade before the 2003 U.S. invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. U.S. warplanes kept Iraqi aircraft out of the sky, and targeted Iraqi air-defense systems that threatened to shoot. Now, along with neighboring Turkey, the U.S. is planning to launch something similar over a stretch of northern Syria.

Eliminating Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria along a strip of the Syrian-Turkish border is the key goal, opening up a safe haven for tens of thousands of Syrians displaced by the country’s four-year-old civil war that has killed more than 200,000. Whether the move hastens the ouster of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad—or leads to the shootdown and possible capture or death of an American pilot—remains unknowable.

Institute for the Study of WarThe striped section of the map is the proposed “no-ISIS zone.”

U.S. officials stressed Monday that Washington and Ankara are planning to step up bombing of ISIS targets on the ground, and not create a formal no-fly zone, which would bar Syrian warplanes from bombing runs. “It’s not a no-fly zone—it’s a bombing campaign,” says retired Marine general Anthony Zinni, who oversaw the Iraqi no-fly zones as chief of U.S. Central Command from 1997 to 2000. He doesn’t think such a bombing campaign will have much effect. “We see how well a year of bombing has worked in Iraq,” where ISIS remains in control of much of the western part of the nation.

The chance of clashes between Syria and U.S. and Turkish aircraft will be more likely once details of the new zone are hammered out and stepped-up U.S.-Turkish attacks on ISIS targets begin. “I think they’ll tell the Syrians to just stay out of the air space,” Zinni says of U.S. and Turkish commanders. “They’ll issue a demarche: ‘If you shoot any air defense weapons at us, we’ll nail you.’ That’s what we did to the Iraqis.”

State Department spokesman John Kirby said Monday that the Syrians aren’t challenging U.S. warplanes. “There is no opposition in the air when coalition aircraft are flying in that part of Syria,” he said. “The Assad regime is not challenging us; [ISIS] doesn’t have airplanes … they’re not being shot at.”

But that’s hardly a guarantee. U.S. commanders will ensure their flight crew fly high and well clear of any known Syrian air-defense threats to minimize the chance of a U.S. pilot being shot down and—in the worst case—falling into ISIS’s hands and murdered. But accidents and snafus can occasionally happen. “We never even had a plane scratched,” Zinni says of the more than 200,000 U.S. flights in the Iraqi no-fly zones from 1992 to 2003. “It was absolutely remarkable.” (Unfortunately, this record was marred by the 1994 shootdown of two U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopters, killing all 26 aboard, by a pair of U.S. Air Force F-15s.)

Conflicting loyalties and priorities complicate the more aggressive campaign. Last week, after a suicide bombing blamed on ISIS killed 30 in a Turkish border town, Turkey began flying air strikes against ISIS targets in Syria, and gave the U.S. long-sought permission to launch air strikes from Turkish bases. Turkey, a NATO ally, is growing increasingly concerned with ISIS on its doorstep, the growing refugee problem, and military successes by its Kurdish minority, some elements of which are seeking their own state.

Kurdish forces control most of the Syrian-Turkish frontier, and the Turkish government views them as a threat much like ISIS. Ankara is also more interested in toppling Assad than battling ISIS. “If there is one person who is responsible for all these terrorist crimes and humanitarian tragedies in Syria, it is Assad’s approach, using chemical weapons, barrel bombs against civilians,” Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told CNN. His government has called for a NATO meeting Tuesday to discuss the ISIS fight.

U.S. and Turkish air power are expected to be used to reinforce Syrian rebels on the ground who are battling ISIS, creating a 68-mile “no-ISIS zone” along the Syrian-Turkish border. “Moderate forces like the Free Syrian Army will be strengthened…so they can take control of areas freed from [ISIS], air cover will be provided,” Davutoglu told Turkey’s A Haber television news channel.. “It would be impossible for them to take control of the area without it.”

U.S. officials have been complaining since the Pentagon began bombing ISIS targets a year ago of a dearth of reliable partners on the ground, in both Iraq and Syria. ISIS drove the U.S.-trained Iraqi army out of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, a year ago, and the U.S. has trained only about 60 Syrian rebels to fight ISIS’s 30,000-strong force.

TIME mental health

Shirtless Marines March in ‘Silkies’ to Raise Suicide Awareness

Each day, 22 former servicemembers commit suicide

A group of Marines is marching 22 kilometers, or about 13.5 miles, wearing nothing but short shorts—called “silkies”—and hauling 22 kilograms, or about 50 pounds, of gear to honor the 22 service members who commit suicide every day.

“Imagine a pub crawl with all your Marine buddies wearing nothing but silkies and rucks on the most crowded and beautiful boardwalk in California. That’s what’s going on here,” a Facebook page for Sunday’s event, “22, with 22, for the 22, in silkies,” says. The event is co-sponsored by two veteran support groups, Irreverent Warriors and VETality Corp.

The journey begins at South Mission Beach Jetty in San Diego and will end at La Jolla Cove.

Each day, 22 veterans—or about 8,000 former military servicemembers—commit suicide.

 

TIME Military

Bowe Bergdahl Caught Up in California Pot Raid

U.S. Army/Getty Images In this undated image provided by the U.S. Army, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl poses in front of an American flag.

But he was found to be uninvolved with marijuana farm, and was not arrested

Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the soldier held captive by the Taliban in Afghanistan for five years, found himself caught up in a raid on a marijuana farm in California on Tuesday.

The pot raid, originally reported in the Anderson Valley Advertiser, took place on a farm where Bergdahl was visiting friends on authorized leave. He was found to be uninvolved with the marijuana operation and was not arrested. The Pentagon reportedly asked Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman to deliver Bergdahl to Santa Rosa to be collected by the army.

Bergdahl returned from Afghanistan in June 2014 after five years in captivity; in exchange, the U.S. government released five Taliban detainees at Guantánamo. He was subsequently charged with desertion and will face court martial.

[Anderson Valley Advertiser]

TIME Military

Russian Bombers Buzzing U.S. Unlikely to Carry Nukes

RUSSIA-HISTORY-VICTORY-DAY-WWII
VASILY MAXIMOV / AFP / Getty Images A trio of Tu-95 bombers flies over the Kremlin in May.

But Moscow’s growing assertiveness concerns U.S. military

The bad news for Americans old enough to remember Cold War shivers is that Soviet-era Tu-95 Bear bombers recently showed up off the U.S. coast. The good news, for Americans, is that the 1950s-era Russian air force turboprop airplanes keep crashing.

And that combination, a former Air Force general says, makes it unlikely that the Russian bombers are carrying any nuclear weapons close to U.S. shores (the bomber would carry such weapons inside its fuselage, making it impossible for outsiders to tell if there any are aboard, Air Force officials say).

“Risking the loss of a long-range bomber like a Tu-95 with a nuclear weapon on board is a pretty big risk,” says David Deptula, a retired three-star officer who spent 3,000 hours in fighter planes, including 400 in combat. “It would be very imprudent to be carrying a nuclear weapons on board a flight like that.” A pair of Russian pilots died July 14 when their Tu-95 crashed in Russia’s Far East; a second Tu-95 ran off a Russian runway June 8 following an engine fire, injuring several crew members.

Russia has been averaging about five such flights annually over the past five years, the North American Aerospace Defense Command reports (although it spiked to 10 last year). “This is nothing new,” NORAD’s Michael Kucharek says. Each time the Russian bombers approach, the joint U.S.-Canadian force dispatches interceptors to eyeball them. “We go up and visually identify the aircraft, and let them know that we are there,’ Kucharek says. “They see us and we see them.”

“I don’t know what to make of it,” Merrill “Tony” McPeak, retired general and Air Force chief of staff, says of the Russian fly-bys. “The training value—polishing skills in navigation, aerial refueling, et cetera—can be achieved flying over Russian territory.”

Deptula says the flights are Russian President Vladimir Putin’s way of asserting Russian might. “He’s showing they still have a way to project power when and where they want to,” Deptula says. “It reinforces the fact that they do have a capability to project power that not many nations do.”

Russia’s actions in the skies, along with those in Ukraine and Crimea, have the U.S. military brass increasingly concerned. On Thursday, Lieut. General Robert Neller, tapped to be the next commandant of the Marine Corps, said he views Russia as the nation that poses the biggest threat to the U.S. “Their actions, and the fact that they have strategic forces, make them the greatest potential threat,” Neller said.

He was echoing the views of General Mark Milley, soon to be the Army chief of staff, and Marine General Joseph Dunford, soon to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs. “If you want to talk about a nation that could pose an existential threat to the United States, I’d have to point to Russia,” Dunford said at his confirmation hearing July 9. “If you look at their behavior, it’s nothing short of alarming.”

The latest Russian flight took place July 4 off the central Californian coast, and a pair of U.S. F-15s were dispatched to check out the intruders. “Good morning American pilots, we are here to greet you on your Fourth of July Independence Day,” a Russian crew member aboard one of the Tu-95s radioed the Americans. The Russians conducted similar flights in 2012 and 2014.

NORAD is pretty mellow about the flights, none of which has come inside the 12-mile territorial limits claimed by both the U.S. and Canada. The latest flight came within about 40 miles of the California coast. “We’ve seen these flight profiles before,”Kucharek says. “If a country has a military, they have to exercise their capabilities.”

That attitude is a far cry from the Pentagon’s view of the Tu-95 during the 1980s, when the lumbering bomber was featured regularly in its annual Soviet Military Power guide, a glossy publication designed to bolster support for President Ronald Reagan’s military buildup.

Engels-2 Aircraft Military Base
Wojtek Laski / Getty ImagesThe Tu-95 is the backbone of Russia’s bomber fleet

“The Tu-95/Bear is the primary intercontinental air threat to the United States,” the 1983 version said. “Capable of delivering free-fall bombs or air-to-surface missiles, under optimum conditions this aircraft can cover virtually all U.S. targets on a two-way mission.”

But Marine Lieut. General Neller apparently isn’t losing any sleep over the Tu-95 flights. “I don’t think they want to fight us,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee Thursday. “Right now I don’t think they want to kill Americans.”

TIME psychology

What the Jade Helm 15 Conspiracy Theory Reveals About Americans

soldiers-walking
Getty Images

There’s reason to be concerned that paranoia may be on the rise

This month, the U.S. military began combat training exercises in several counties in Texas and other western states. Dubbed “Jade Helm 15,” they’re designed to train soldiers how to operate in civilian areas, as often happens in the Middle East.

But when the government announced that these exercises would take place, a furor erupted, especially in Texas.

Concerns ranged from practical ones (the possibility of the exercises starting wildfires) to more outlandish ones: some called it a smokescreen for the imposition of martial law, while others view the exercises as a means to confiscate guns from citizens, which will set the stage for a military takeover of Texas.

The media, not surprisingly, had a field day: article after article detailed the fear and concerns of a certain sect of Texan citizens, tossing around the terms “conspiracy theorists” and “paranoid” to describe them.

But are those who believe in governmental conspiracies really paranoid, in the clinical sense of the word? And if Jade Helm-like conspiracy theories are on the rise, is this an indication that, as a culture, we’re becoming more paranoid? As I detail in my upcoming book Paranoid: Exploring Suspicion From the Dubious to the Delusional, I believe the answer very well might be “yes.”

What is paranoia, clinically speaking?

The word “paranoia” is often tossed around in the same way that “depression” is. It’s used most often to mean that someone is overly suspicious (or in the case of depression, sad).

Paranoia in a clinical sense, though, refers to a pathological condition in which individuals, without good reason or evidence, consistently believe others are out to get them.

So are Texans who think that martial law is about to be imposed paranoid? Well, to the extent that their fears lack evidence, are rigidly held onto, are not modified by counter-argument, cause them distress and result in anger – then, perhaps, they are. After all, those are some of the classic characteristics seen in paranoid patients.

But you can be wary without being paranoid. Recent revelations regarding the government’s domestic spying will make even the most trusting of us a bit more concerned. There’s a thin line between “Jade Helm is designed to take away our guns” and “it’s designed take away my guns.” The latter belief – the personal one – comes closest to clinical paranoia.

So are we more paranoid?

To many, the Jade Helm conspiracy theory sounds downright delusional. It ranks up there with Area 51’s space aliens and the government’s role in blowing up the twin towers on 9/11.

Those of us old enough to remember the hoopla over Paul McCartney’s purported death realize that such conspiracies theories are nothing new. But the belief in outlandish ideas doesn’t equate to a clinical condition. Thirty percent of us believe in ghosts and 20% believe in witches. Many of us believe in things for which evidence is lacking without being labeled as being mentally ill.

Still, are Jade Helm and other conspiracy theories an indication of a trend toward increased paranoia in our society?

Perhaps. There’s reason to be concerned that paranoia may be on the rise even though data are lacking. And it could be that the realities of modern life are partially to blame.

Each day we face multiple threats to our sense of security and privacy. Security cameras are omnipresent; drones (both government and private) fly overhead. Big as well as small (micro) satellites monitor us from above. Computer hackers steal our information and identities, while the government monitors all our electronic activity. We can be tracked by the cellphones we carry.

Terrorism, while rare on our shores, is a concern for most Americans. Media coverage, which includes reports of prevented terrorist attacks, has become more and more prevalent. While reassuring us that we are thwarting terrorist plots, it also tells us that we live in an unsafe world.

All of these threaten our sense of safety. But is there scientific evidence that these factors have resulted in increased rates of paranoia? Admittedly, no. But there is precedent for environmental factors contributing to increased rates of mental illness.

We can’t help but notice

Fifty years ago, women with a Marilyn Monroe figure were satisfied with their physique, as models and actresses of the era were similarly proportioned. But within a decade, media images of women presented increasingly thinner bodies.

The result was an increase in body dissatisfaction among women and an epidemic of eating disorders that has yet to subside. Women in the 1970s didn’t stop and study images of thin models and actresses. Nonetheless, they’d been exposed to them over and over again on television and billboards, and in magazines and movies.

Similarly, we don’t “study” the security cameras that we see each day, but we do notice them. We’re aware that drones and satellites are overhead even if we can’t see them. We know there are computer hackers out there. Our brains absorb all of this information. And it is making us less trusting and more suspicious. Polls over the last several decades document this phenomenon.

Ominously, polls also indicate increased anger among Americans. I point this out because when paranoia does erupt in violence – like during the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre – it’s often the result of pent-up anger.

As noted, one can be wary but not paranoid. Not every female in the 1970s, ‘80s and ’90s who was dissatisfied with her body developed an eating disorder. Not everybody who is more concerned about security and privacy and less trusting will develop paranoia. But some will undoubtedly slip from wariness to suspicion, from suspicion to paranoia.

So when the good people of Texas wake up to the sight of armed troops in their communities, will some experience paranoia? Yes. And for some people – whether it’s justified or not – the presence of these troops will further erode an already tenuous sense of trust and security.

This article originally appeared on The ConversationThe Conversation

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Turkey

Turkey Opens Key Air Base for U.S. Air Strikes Against ISIS

Turkey Syria Crisis
Vadim Ghirda—AP A US Air Force plane takes off from the Incirlik airbase in southern Turkey on Sept. 1, 2013.

The U.S. has been seeking permission for months

(WASHINGTON) — Turkey has agreed to let the U.S. military launch airstrikes against the Islamic State from a key air base near the Syrian border, senior U.S. officials said Thursday, giving a boost to the U.S.-led coalition while drawing Turkey deeper into the conflict.

President Barack Obama and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan finalized the deal in a phone call Wednesday, officials said, following months of U.S. appeals and delicate negotiations over the use of Incirlik and other bases in Turkey. Frustrated by Obama’s focus on fighting IS instead of Syrian President Bashar Assad, Turkey’s government had resisted the move, but in recent days a surge in Islamic State activity in Turkey has brought concerns about the militant group to the forefront.

American officials said access to the base in southern Turkey, not far from IS strongholds across the border in Syria, would allow the U.S. to move more swiftly and nimbly against IS targets. If the agreement holds, the U.S.-led coalition will be positioned to conduct better surveillance over Syria and act quicker on intelligence than when it was limited to launching flights from places like Iraq, Jordan and the Gulf states.

Under the deal, the U.S. military will be allowed to launch manned and unmanned flights from Incirlik; in the past, only unmanned drone flights were allowed.

Turkey has yet to publicly confirm the agreement, which U.S. officials discussed on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to comment publicly. Citing operational security, the White House declined to confirm the agreement, but noted that Obama and Erdogan had agreed to “deepen our cooperation” against IS in their phone call Wednesday.

“Turkey is a critical partner in degrading and defeating ISIL, and we appreciate the essential support Turkey provides to the international coalition across the many lines of effort,” said Alistair Baskey, a spokesman for the White House’s National Security Council, using an alternative acronym for the militant group.

Incirlik Air Base, located across the border from the Syrian city of Aleppo, is a joint U.S.-Turkish installation that houses the U.S. Air Force’s 39th Air Base Wing. Its proximity to IS-controlled territory in Syria — including Raqqa, the group’s de facto capital — makes it an attractive launching pad for U.S. airstrikes against IS. Turkey shares a 1,250-kilometer (775-mile) border with Syria and with Iraq, where IS also controls broad swaths of territory.

Turkey, a NATO ally and onetime close U.S. partner, has resisted getting embroiled too deeply in the U.S.-led fight against IS. The move to allow Turkish soil to be used to launch U.S. airstrikes appeared to mark a significant shift in approach.

Although Turkey is part of the U.S.-led coalition, it has limited its role out of concern that Washington’s overall strategy for Syria is flawed. To Turkey’s dismay, Obama has prioritized fighting IS over opposing Assad in Syria’s civil war. For months, as the U.S. requested consent to strike from Incirlik, Turkey held off, while continuing to press Obama to broaden his mission.

It was unclear whether Turkey had extracted a commitment from the U.S. to take on Assad more aggressively in exchange for using Incirlik. But in an apparent nod to Turkey’s priorities, the White House said Obama and Erdogan had also decided to deepen cooperation on “our work to bring about a political settlement to the conflict in Syria.”

Turkey’s shift on Incirlik came as the country is on higher alert following a series of deadly attacks and unsettling signs of increased IS activity in Turkey. On Thursday, IS militants fired from Syrian territory at a Turkish military outpost. Turkish retaliated, killing at least one IS militant. And earlier in the week, a suicide bombing that Turkey blamed on IS militants killed 32 people in southeastern Turkey, near the Syrian border.

The agreement to deepen cooperation between the U.S. and Turkey was a promising sign for two countries whose relations have grown strained in recent years. The U.S. and Western countries have long been pressing Erdogan’s government to do more to stop foreign fighters from crossing through Turkey into Syria and Iraq to join IS, with some analysts suggesting Turkey was looking the other way because the Islamic State is also fighting Assad.

“Turkey has also taken many important steps to curb the flow of foreign fighters,” Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said in a statement Thursday, adding that the foreign fighter problem is not Turkey’s alone.

Turkish officials have also raised concerns that cracking down on IS operations could prompt retaliation against Turkey, a fear that gained fresh currency following Monday’s deadly bombing. In the last six months, Turkish officials say, more than 500 people suspected of working with IS have been detained.

___

Associated Press writers Matthew Lee in Washington, Desmond Butler in Istanbul and Suzan Frazer in Ankara, Turkey, contributed to this report.

TIME Iraq

Defense Secretary Ash Carter Makes Surprise Visit to Iraq

Carter boards his plane at Queen Alia Airport in Amman
Carolyn Kaster—Reuters U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter, joined by U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Ron Lewis, right, and Chief of Staff Eric Rosenbach, left, boards his plane at Queen Alia Airport in Amman, Jordan on July 23, 2015, en route to Baghdad.

It is Carter's first visit to Iraq since he took office in February

(BAGHDAD) — U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter arrived unannounced in Baghdad on Thursday to assess the government’s progress in healing the country’s sectarian divisions and hear the latest on support for the Iraqi army’s coming attempt to recapture the key city of Ramadi from the Islamic State.

It is Carter’s first visit to Iraq since he took office in February.

His first stop on a daylong visit to the Iraqi capital was the Iraqi Counterterrorism Service Academy. He spent about 20 minutes there, watching Iraqi soldiers in their trademark all-black uniforms maneuver and fire at silhouette targets at a firing range. Some wore partial or full-face masks.

Carter told the Iraqi counterterrorism commanders: “Your forces have performed so very well, so very bravely. And I know that you have suffered great losses too, but I just wanted to tell you that it is very clear to us in Washington what a capable force this is. So it’s a privilege for us to be your partners.”

Carter is not expected to announce any major change in U.S. strategy or increase in U.S. troop levels. The approximately 3,360 troops now in Iraq are largely involved in training Iraqi troops, advising Iraqi commanders on battle plans, and providing security for U.S. personnel and facilities. The U.S., joined by several coalition partners, also is conducting airstrikes daily to chip away at the Islamic State’s grip on large parts of Iraq.

The visit, however, comes at an important moment for the Iraqi government, which has announced a counteroffensive to retake Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province. The actual assault on the city has not yet begun, but a Pentagon spokesman, Army Col. Steve Warren, said it could start within several weeks.

The Ramadi campaign will be a crucial test not only for the Iraqi government led by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, but also for the U.S. strategy of relying on Iraqi security forces, operating in coordination with U.S.-led coalition airstrikes, to overcome the smaller Islamic State forces. President Barack Obama has opted not to commit U.S. ground combat forces to Iraq, saying the only lasting solution is for Iraq to fight for itself.

American military leaders have said they would recommend to Obama that he approve moving U.S. military advisers and perhaps special operations forces closer to the front lines if they believed it would make a decisive difference at certain stages of the Iraqi campaign. But Warren said no such recommendation has yet been made. Obama’s critics in Congress complain that he is missing an opportunity to swiftly defeat the Islamic State by not sending U.S. ground combat troops or at least placing military advisers with Iraqi units to make them more effective.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who visited Iraq last weekend, supports Obama’s approach. He told a congressional hearing July 7 that he realizes the Islamic State’s threat to the U.S. homeland “could increase” as a result of what he called a patient U.S. approach in Iraq and Syria.

“But I also would suggest to you that we would contribute mightily to ISIL’s message as a movement were we to confront them directly on the ground in Iraq and Syria,” he said, using an acronym for the Islamic State and alluding to the risk of enhancing the group’s ability to recruit fighters.

After Iraqi troops abandoned Ramadi in early May, handing the Islamic State its biggest battlefield victory of 2015, Carter caused a stir in Iraq when he said its army “just showed no will to fight.” That frank assessment exposed a central Iraqi weakness born of the country’s sectarian split.

Carter noted then that the Iraqi forces were not outnumbered in Ramadi, yet they abandoned their weapons and equipment, including dozens of American-supplied tanks, armored fighting vehicles and artillery pieces. They became part of the Islamic State’s arsenal and were then targeted in U.S. airstrikes.

The Islamic State will again be outnumbered when, as expected, the Iraqi army makes a renewed assault on Ramadi. Warren, the Pentagon spokesman who is traveling with Carter, said there are between 1,000 and 2,000 Islamic State fighters in Ramadi. He would not say how many Iraqi troops are likely to undertake the Ramadi counteroffensive, but he said there are “several thousand” available in the area right now.

The U.S. accelerated and expanded its training effort in Anbar province earlier this summer, but Warren said that none of the Iraqi troops currently available for the Ramadi counteroffensive are among the nearly 7,000 regular Iraq army soldiers who have received U.S. training. He said the government has deployed those trainees elsewhere in the country, although he did not rule out that they might be added to the Ramadi force.

Warren said Iraqi security forces currently are carrying out “isolation operations” around Ramadi, meaning they are cutting off avenues of Islamic State resupply and reinforcement. Although under Iraqi command, the battle plan has been shaped to some degree by American advisers.

“We are beginning to isolate Ramadi from multiple directions,” Warren said, “… to place a noose around the city.” At a later stage — the timing of which he would not predict — the assault phase of the campaign will begin.

The loss of Ramadi was a major setback for Iraq, not just for the territory given up but for the psychological blow it inflicted on the security forces, whose confidence already was low. It also meant a delay in the push to retake a city of even greater strategic importance, Mosul in northern Iraq. Mosul has been in Islamic State hands since June 2014.

When Carter became Pentagon chief in February, replacing Chuck Hagel, U.S. military officials were talking openly about hoping the Iraqis would march on the city by May. Those hopes had faded even before Ramadi fell. Still, the current focus on recapturing Ramadi will eventually have to move to Mosul and other parts of western and northern Iraq if Obama’s vision of empowering a unified Iraq is to become reality.

TIME Military

Unmanned Aerial Vengeance: Drone Takes Out Terrorist Linked to Marine’s Killing

Marines Mourn Fallen Comrade
David McNew / Getty Images Marines at Camp Pendleton, Calif., the home base of Tony Sledd, honor him three days after he was killed in Kuwait in 2002.

Thirteen years after Kuwaiti ambush, Lance Corporal Sledd’s death is avenged

“If you target Americans,” President Obama warned terrorists during a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars on Tuesday, “you will find no safe haven.” Like an explosive exclamation point, the Pentagon confirmed his pledge hours later, announcing that the U.S. military had killed Muhsin al-Fadhli. Thirteen years earlier, the military said, al-Fadhli played a role in the killing of Marine Lance Corporal Antonio “Tony” Sledd.

It was a lengthy wait, and one that may not bring much comfort to Sledd’s family, who complained he never should have died. But the nature of both killings—and the 4,656 days between them—highlights the unusual complications of a religion-fueled war, where traditional norms of warfare often don’t apply.

Sledd was 20 when he died on Oct. 8, 2002, on Faylaka Island, 20 miles east of Kuwait City in the Persian Gulf. He was killed by a pair of Kuwaitis who had infiltrated a U.S. military training exercise in a white truck and opened fire with their AK-47s.

USMCLance Corporal Antonio Sledd

Sledd’s killing has been described by some as the first American casualty of the second Iraq war. While the invasion was five months away, the Marines were practicing urban warfare on the island, readying for the conflict. The killers gunned down Sledd during a break in the training as he readied a makeshift baseball diamond, echoing the sport he played as a youngster in Hillsborough, Fla.

As bizarre as Sheed’s death was, so was the way the U.S. military killed al-Fadhli, 34: with a drone strike July 8 as he traveled by vehicle near Sarmada in northwestern Syria. It took the Pentagon two weeks to confirm his death. “Al-Fadhli was the leader of a network of veteran al-Qaeda operatives, sometimes called the Khorasan Group, who are plotting external attacks against the United States and our allies,” Navy Captain Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement. He added that al-Fadhli also was “involved” in the 2002 attack “against U.S. Marines on Faylaka Island in Kuwait.”

While the Pentagon said al-Fadhli was “among the few” al Qaeda leaders who “received advance notification” of the 9/11 attacks before they happened, the attack on the Marines on Faylaka Island was the only U.S. death the Pentagon cited in the statement detailing al-Fadhli’s killing in which he was alleged to have played an active role.

U.S. GovernmentMuhsin al-Fadhli

Sledd was one of about 150 Marines on the island, from the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit aboard a flotilla led by the amphibious assault ship USS Belleau Wood.

The day before the attack, some leathernecks had spotted the two Kuwaitis who they believed killed Sledd and wounded a second Marine. “We weren’t expecting trouble,” one Marine recalled. “I thought they were probably just curious about Marines.”

The next day, the Marines began their training using blanks, with armed sentries standing guard. But when there was a break in the action, Sledd’s platoon turned in their live ammo, according to Marines who were there. After shooting Sledd and wounding Lance Corporal George Simpson, 21, of Dayton, Ohio, Anas al-Kandari, 21, and his cousin, Jassem al-Hajiri, 26, suspected Islamic militants, were killed by a second group of Marines after firing on them.

An Army medevac helicopter picked up Sledd, who had been shot in the chin and stomach, within 10 minutes. “Marines can be as tough as woodpecker lips, and I thought he was going to live,” his first sergeant said after seeing him just before the rescue chopper lifted off, bound for a military hospital in Kuwait City. “He squeezed my hand as hard as any healthy Marine could do.” But he died during surgery.

“Till this day I don’t think I did enough and I want to apologize to Sledd’s family and friends,” a Marine comrade posted on a memorial website in 2009, more than six years after his death. “It was my job to bring him back and I didn’t, I’m so sorry!”

Sledd’s parents were upset that their son died amid armed Marines in an allied nation. “There’s no way civilians should have been in that area where Tony was,” Tom Sledd told the Orlando Sentinel shortly after his son’s death. “They should have been challenged and shot before they got close enough to shoot Tony…he was a good boy. He didn’t have to die so young.” His mother, Norma, agreed. “Security perimeters were not set up, and that is why he lost his life,” she said. “They murdered my son.”

Ten months later, a corps probe agreed that proper security would most likely have prevented the young Marine’s death. Sledd’s parents couldn’t be reached for comment on the Pentagon announcement of al-Fadhli’s death.

Sledd, whose fraternal twin, Mike, was serving in the corps when his brother died, sent his mother an email shortly before the attack. “Tell everyone I love them and we are doing the best we can to protect y’all’s country,” it read. “Love, Big T.”

Earlier this month, his government did its best to return the favor.

U.S. Government
TIME Military

Armed Citizens Guard Military Recruiting Centers After Tennessee Shootings

Chattanooga Shooting-Guarding Recruiters
Eric Schultz—AP A man who would only give his name as J.R. stands with his sidearm as dozens of people, to the front door of the Armed Forces Career Center in Huntsville, Ala.

The citizens say they're supporting the recruiters who are not armed

(COLUMBUS, Ohio) — Gun-toting citizens are showing up at military recruiting centers around the country, saying they plan to protect recruiters following last week’s killing of four Marines and a sailor in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

The citizens, some of them private militia members, say they’re supporting the recruiters who by military directive are not armed.

Wearing a Taurus 9mm handgun outside a Columbus, Ohio, recruiting center, Clint Janney (JAN’-ee) said Tuesday he’s doing what the government won’t.

Similar posts have been set up outside recruitment centers in Madison, Wisconsin; Hiram, Georgia; and several sites in Tennessee.

Brian Lepley, spokesman for the U.S. Army Recruiting Command, says the office doesn’t have a position on the actions as long as people aren’t disrupting the recruiting centers.

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