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More on FOB Mizan

By Michael Fumento

Looking inside this compound is like looking at stop action photography -- you know, like when they make the flower appear to bloom right before your eyes. In the few days I've been here I've seen both sides of the "safe house" (the soldiers' quarters) reinforced extending the roof on both sides and building two new walls of sandbags. The dining facility (DFAC) has been sandbagged about half way up but only because they keep running out of filled bags.

An Apache gunship flies above FOB Mizan's "sandbag palace."Photo by Michael Fumento. Click image for larger view.
The Internet connection, which because of a lightning strike had been knocked out for a month, has been restored. The wiring has been buried to keep it from being pulled out or cut. A TV was installed just today -- though curiously it only seems to receive sports channels. (I did watch an episode of "The Simpsons," which was a nice reminder of home and civilization.) An open booth was installed inside the DFAC so a telephone could be set up. I used it to call home for the first time in over a week. (By comparison, on my last Iraq visit I wasn't able to call my wife at all.) There were one or two tables in the DFAC when I arrived; now it's filled with enough freshly-built tables to accommodate everyone, although the tiny cloth-and-metal fold-up chairs were obviously built for munchkin butts.

I jokingly told the commander that he must be an engineer. Turns out he is. But like me, he was trained mostly in blowing things up and is in fact a graduate of the sapper school at Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri. That's where I had my basic and advanced training. Yet Stofan insisted the credit for most of the building goes to his platoon sergeant and "A lot of the structures have been built by the carpenters, guys who've had odd jobs and such. There's no real architect; they wing it."

Firing the M-120 120 mm mortar at night. Photo by Michael Fumento. Click image for larger view.
It's good ol' American ingenuity -- combined with good ol' Romanian ingenuity provided by the five of them at the FOB, who are whizzes at sandbagging. "I wish you could see pictures of the FOB from before," Stofan said, "but the improvements have been unbelievable. I think they filled over 25,000 sandbags." Indeed, I overheard one soldier on the phone say they call the place "The Sandbag Palace."

Stofan, an Officer Candidate School graduate, is rather on the old side for a 1st Lt. at 28. But he only joined the Army in March of 2005. The reason? "I got tired of sitting on the sidelines."
Says the Miami Springs, Florida native whose wife is back in Germany, "Pretty much the reason I joined was to go to war. I was happy to deploy to Afghanistan."

B Co., 1-4 Infantry arrived at FOB Mizan from its base in Hohenfels, Germany (near Nuremburg) on January 15, inheriting the site from the 10th Mountain Division, which in turn took over from the 173rd Airborne Brigade. As discussed in an earlier blog the Mizan district, with a population of about 25,000, is a way station for enemy fighters heading for Helmund and Kandahar Provinces. FOB Mizan was plopped down here not to keep the Taliban entirely out, which is utterly beyond its ability, but to inhibit the movement of the Taliban and improve security in Mizan district.

Photo by Michael Fumento. Click image for larger view.
FOB Mizan's very presence inhibits the Taliban within a 7-10 kilometer range from the FOB. The camp's M-120 120 millimeter mortar, with a maximum range of 7.2 kilometers, which from what I saw can hit the Taliban anywhere on their side of the mountain range that surrounds the camp, has got to be a bit scary to the bad guys as well. I watched a nighttime drill in which within about five minutes they had the huge tube was blasting away. It was so quick I didn't have time to put in my earplugs before I had to have my camera snapping away. Ouch.

But patrols are the main tool for keeping the Taliban on the run. "With the random patrols their movement is completely inhibited because they never know when we’ll be there," says Stofan, "and they do not want to fight us. They don't have the numbers, they don't have the discipline and skill (much of their training is religious), and they don't have the weapons. "Their most feared weapon is the RPG," says Stofan. "They may also have 82 millimeter mortars but no base plates so they can't really aim them."

Unfortunately, patrols are not the answer to restoring security in the villages. "You have to be there on a permanent basis," says Stofan, and given current resources in manpower that's a pipe dream for now.

"You could take a picture of one of these villages and it would look like something out of a nativity scene." Photo by Michael Fumento. Click image for larger view.
"They're worried about the Taliban because they strong-arm people for shelter or food and then move on to next town," he continues. "When they pass through in large numbers they leave behind nuisance guys to close schools and clinics by kidnapping teachers and doctors and scaring off road crews.

"The last school in the Mizan district closed two years ago," he says, "yet about 50-60 percent of population is under 14 years old. There's a rapidly growing younger generation not getting educated. There is some Koran teaching going on and I asked the instructor if he'd expand teachings to grammar and math if we provided the books. He said he would, but the process of getting these things is long."

Except, perhaps, for additions to the FOB, everything moves slowly out here and the people are quite used to it. Sometimes "slowly" is not at all -- or at least not in 2,000 years. "You could take a picture of one of these villages and it would look like something out of a nativity scene," says Stofan. I have, and it does.

Michael Fumento has paid for this trip entirely out of pocket, including roundtrip airfare to Kuwait, war insurance, and virtually all his gear. Please support him via PayPal Donate or Amazon Honor System via the logos below.

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April 30, 2007 04:08 PM  ·  Permalink  ·  Afghanistan ~ Military

February Firefight at Mizan

By Michael Fumento

February 7, 2006. Approximately 40 Taliban are detected during daylight about 10 kilometers northwest of FOB Mizan. A jet could be called in on their position, dropping bombs and firing missiles and almost certainly killing some of them. But some of them isn't good enough out here. When you get the chance to kill or capture some, you try to kill or capture every last one of them. No airstrike can promise that on a group of men spread out precisely to avoid heavy casualties from the air or artillery. You have to go in and get them.

Practice on the Mizan FOB's 120 mm mortar, the largest mortar in the U.S. inventory. Photo by Michael Fumento. Click image for larger view.
A task force is quickly put together. It comprises Army Special Forces, a unit of the 10th Mountain Division, and B Co. 1-4 Infantry.

Approaching from three directions, the idea is to catch them in a pincer so that the only Taliban options will be death or surrender. B Co.'s contribution, headed up by unit commander 1st Lt. Kevin Stofan, is to stealthily set up a blocking position with five Humvees carrying a variety of weaponry inside the trucks and in the truck turrets.

"I pinpointed them in a saddle [a depression, literally shaped like a horse saddle]," said Stofan later. But the enemy quickly realizes their position is detected "and acted like the desperate men they were." If Stofan saw them first, they see him first among the Americans.

In quick succession they fire 5 RPG rounds at his vehicle. These are the most feared Taliban weapons on the battlefield. Humvee armor can stop machine gun fire from anything the Taliban can carry, but an RPG will rip right through it.

"Hang!" Photo by Michael Fumento. Click image for larger view.
The doors are open and a blast blows the driver, Pfc. Jonathan Zaehringer, six meters out of the vehicle. The M240 medium machine gun turret gunner, Spc. Marcel Green, nevertheless holds his position.

"He knew that an RPG round was coming and he just kept firing," said Stofan. The explosion ripped away three of his fingers. "An RPG round knocked me unconscious and I was pretty banged up," said Stofan. The medic in the vehicle, Pfc. Aaron Murray, suffered a concussion and shrapnel wounds to his hand.

Humvees are darned heavy (the Afghans call them "tanks") but the force of one of the RPG rounds causes this one to roll down a crest, separating those inside from an unconscious Zaehringer. The only unhurt and conscious man in the truck is Pvt. Stephen Wright, who just joined the unit two months earlier. He runs back up the hill, firing suppressive rounds from his M-4 carbine before grabbing Zaehringer -- who for all he knows is dead -- by the handle on his body armor and pulling him back to the Humvee.

"Wright was practically fresh out of basic training," Stofan said with a bit of awe in his voice, "and he did everything automatically."

. . . and . . . Photo by Michael Fumento. Click image for larger view.
Meanwhile B Co., SF, and the 10th Mountain blast back with M240s, M-203 grenade launchers, Mark-19 automatic grenade launchers, .50 caliber machine guns, and a 60 millimeter mortar that B Co. brought along.

"We put a bad hurt on the Taliban," said Stofan. "Probably upwards of 30 were killed, although they were able to drag away most of the bodies."

After an agonizing wait, a Blackhawk drops out of the sky and evacuates the worst of the wounded. Later a jet destroys the Humvee, which is far beyond salvage.

"Fire!" Photo by Michael Fumento. Click image for larger view.
For his action, Wright was later awarded the bronze star with V device as was Green. Green, Zaehringer, and Murray all received purple hearts.

Wright is still with the unit, but doesn't like to talk about the night's events. Murray is also with the unit.

Pfc. Stephen Wright Click image for larger view.

Green is still recovering at the U.S. military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany while Zaehringer was treated at Walter Reed Army Hospital before being transferred to another hospital in Michigan. He's now recovering at his family's home in a small town just outside Chicago.

It's already an almost forgotten episode in America's forgotten war.

Michael Fumento has paid for this trip entirely out of pocket, including roundtrip airfare to Kuwait, war insurance, and virtually all his gear. Please support him via PayPal Donate or Amazon Honor System via the logos below.

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April 25, 2007 09:41 AM  ·  Permalink  ·  Afghanistan ~ Military

A Blog on Warblogging

By Michael Fumento

When you make a decision to go to a war zone and leave behind the comforts of home, you do just that. There are true pleasures to being out there with guys defending our country and there are true deprivations. Of course, there are war zones and there are war zones. In Iraq's International Zone (Green Zone) or in Baghdad hotels or even a major base like Camp Fallujah and Camp Ramadi, you have a real degree of comfort and ease in going about your work. Likewise for Bagram Air Base or Kandahar Air Base in Afghanistan. But join the troops at a Forward Operating Base (FOB) and comfort and ease of work plummets. Those are the places I go to and I only have two real concerns when I get there.

UN grain donation (note the light blue bags). Photo by Michael Fumento. Click image for larger view.
First, I want every chance to see combat, and hence be in a dangerous area and go on every patrol. We need reporters who work out of safe areas; I'm just not one of them. That's why I refused to go to Tikrit in Iraq when the Combined Press Information Center (CPIC) tried to send me there. There was virtually no chance of combat and, as it happens, during the time I would have been there was none. Now CPIC is mad at me for not shelling out my own money for airfare and war insurance to spend 12 days where I knew nothing would happen and where nothing did happen.

Second, since while I do write articles when I get back but blog while here I need a degree of internet access. And a degree is all you to get. Connections are almost always mind-numbingly slow. You can wait literally 10 minutes or more just for a website to come up. Some will never come up because they're too loaded with graphics.

As a general rule, you're limited to only 30 minutes online and unfortunately there are no rules on what you can do in that time. For example, at Camp Corregidor in Ramadi I saw a guy using his time to play solitaire which, so I'm told, can be played on an unconnected laptop. In fact, and again I'm just going by what I was told, it can even be played with no computer at all using something called "a deck of cards."

Donkey cart in Qalat. Photo by Michael Fumento. Click image for larger view.
Anyway, whatever the soldiers do with their time, as a blogger you can spend as much as half yours just connecting to the site where you upload your blog text and photos.

I'm a bit perplexed at complaints I've heard from citizen embeds about their computer connections being so slow that they don't even have time for proper spelling or -- far more importantly -- uploading photos. That's because there's no way you would ever write a blog or format a photo on their computers; you do it on your own laptop. First you write your blog and save it as a file. As for the photos, they must be resized or they won't just be a pig in a python; rather your connection will time out and the photos won't be sent at all. In my case I shoot at 5 megapixels, which is enough for a magazine cover, but I use free software to reduce them to 640,000 pixels. On a computer screen, anything more than that many pixels is wasted.

At this point, your actions are dictated by whether the MWR (Morale, Welfare, and Recreation) center has either computers or just a hookup for your laptop. (Even if you hook up your own, the 30-minute rule still generally applies.) If you can't hook up your own computer (and here at FOB Mizan it's the only way), then you use theirs. If you use theirs, before you get on and start burning your 30 minutes you'll have transferred everything to a USB drive.

Your intrepid reporter firing a laser-sited M-4 carbine (I killed 31 Taliban with a 30-round magazine). Photo by Michael Fumento. Click image for larger view.
I've never seen a computer in either war theater that was so old it didn't have USB ports, but I bring a portable floppy drive with me just in case. At this point, you need only connect to your upload site and begin uploading. Without photos the text upload on even the slowest lines should still take only seconds. If you're attaching photos, at 640,000 pixels you could be adding 15 - 20 seconds per image.

Easier yet, you can simply send your photos and blog file with photo captions to a third party, in my case my wife, and have him or her do the posting to your blog.

Alternatively, the Big Boys with the MSM completely avoid the Internet by using an R-BGAN, a satellite hookup direct from the laptop to a box placed outside facing the right direction. They aren't cheap and I don't feel I can afford one myself, but you can also rent them -- although I don't feel I can afford that either! If I could I'd invest the money in other areas such as improving my body armor.

But I know Bill Roggio has an R-BGAN and Mike Yon had one at one time. I'm sure some other citizen embeds have them as well. Then you actually have time to check the sports scores, see if your stock portfolio has plummeted, or even -- gasp -- send an e-mail to your wife and cat.

I hope we can give them a free country in which to grow up. Photo by Michael Fumento. Click image for larger view.
One way or another, you take what you can get out here. (In a previous blog I said the showers here are hot; today I found out that isn't always the case. I hate cold showers!) Otherwise, put your blogging skills to work in your comfy home or office. That's what 99.999999999 percent of American bloggers do and nobody will think the worse of you if you fall into that percentage. But if you're going to be a warblogger, you'll work under war conditions. And the most exciting places to report from, the places where you'll be reporting on the servicemen and women who are truly putting their lives at risk, are the most grueling. Unlike the soldiers, nobody ordered you here. You chose it; now suck it up.

Michael Fumento has paid for this trip entirely out of pocket, including roundtrip airfare to Kuwait, war insurance, and virtually all his gear. Please support him via PayPal Donate or Amazon Honor System via the logos below.

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April 24, 2007 10:17 AM  ·  Permalink  ·  Afghanistan ~ Media ~ Military

A Stick in the Mud

By Michael Fumento

Today we were supposed to go out on a mechanized patrol of the area, including the riverbed. And then, I thought, we were to go into town to meet with officials. The patrols go out four days out of five to check for Taliban and possibly draw a fight (In fact, a patrol was ambushed recently where we went today), but there's just not the manpower here to get really aggressive with them.

Thatched roof over a mud hut. Photo by Michael Fumento. Click image for larger view.
First we stopped by an Afghan National Police station inside our wire, a series of mud huts. Mud huts are actually a lot more resilient than you might think, because they're not just mud. They mix in lots of straw and gravel and twigs, with larger pieces of wood going sideways across the top and thatch on top of that with or without another layer of mud. Far from washing away with a good rain, they'll probably last longer than some of the condo units being slapped together in my town.

The Afghan police were all neatly in uniform, seemed to have relatively new weaponry, were neither particularly old nor particularly young, and just gave the air of being more professional than the ones I saw along Highway One. When one barked out an order they piled into the back of a shiny green pickup truck, which looked fairly new.

Afghan National Police, loading up. Photo by Michael Fumento. Click image for larger view.
Then we drove into an area that separates the tough stomachs from the Dramamine reliant ones. It was like being caught in a force six hurricane. (Yes, I know there's no such thing.) I don't know how anybody could find any amusement park ride fun after that. Actually, having been a paratrooper forever destroyed the fun of carnival rides for me anyway. As we approached the river that essentially divides our side of the area from the part the Taliban like play in the path got muddier and muddier.

By the time we realized we were going to get stuck in just a few more feet, well, we got stuck right there. We called upon another Humvee to try to pull us out with winch but nothing doing. All four wheels just got stuck deeper. The soldiers tried putting rocks under the wheels, but to no avail.

Our Humvee, stuck in the mud. Photo by Michael Fumento. Click image for larger view.
Now the afternoon sun was coming up and for the first time in Afghanistan I felt quite hot. But fortunately where we stopped there were plenty of photo-ops, including kids, animals, and poppies. Poppies are among the loveliest flowers; it's too bad they do such damage. These will end up supplying junkies in Europe -- the U.S. gets its illegal opiates from South America.

Poppy eradication is a very tough political issue. No other crop can begin to bring in the type of revenue these flowers do. The only other crop I saw that day was boring old leaf cabbage, although Zabul province is one of the richest agricultural areas of the country. If you're going to destroy a farmer's poppies without compensating him, you threaten to make him a Taliban sympathizer. But if there's no money for bullets, there's no money for such compensation.

Spc. Jonathan Lackovic protects the stricken convoy from killer donkeys. Photo by Michael Fumento. Click image for larger view.
I was on the river side of the vehicles when the CO (1st Lt. Kevin Stofan) called me back to the other side. There was a report that woman and children had hurriedly abandoned a compound in the wood line behind the river as six men entered. Were they Taliban? We'll never know, but there was a good chance.

Eventually a third Humvee from our patrol came along with a reinforced bumper made for pushing. So we did a push-me-pull-you. With one pulling from the front and the other pushing from the back, out we popped. We headed very carefully back to the FOB, with the Lt. often getting out to check for mud.

Two hours later we "headed into town" to see the district chief. Actually, his headquarters are about 100 meters from where I sleep. The town is fairly safe, apparently, but not so much that it isn't smarter for him to live in a building with us. It was interesting seeing how our guys do business with the locals. The first order of business was compensation for a man whose house we accidentally dropped a bomb on. Eight people were wounded, but none killed.

He was to receive about $4,000 and Lt. Stefan's main concern was that this was an old man who would be walking from town and $4,000 was a heck of an incentive for a mugging. The district chief agreed, but seemed more interested in money to support his operations. You can't really blame him, I guess. His police haven't been paid in apparently five months. "We can fight better if we are paid," he insisted while fingering his prayer beads. Makes a certain amount of sense. But he also said he believed the money, which would be coming not straight from Kabul but rather via the administrator in Qalat, would be arriving in 20 days or so. The Lt. promised he would ask "my boss," meaning the C Co. commander, to intercede and that past such efforts appear to have met with some success.

Pretty but deadly poppies. Photo by Michael Fumento. Click image for larger view.
It was interesting watching how the conversation played out, always mixing friendly conversation with business as opposed to in the States where we usually start out with the pleasantries and end up with the business. So then Lt. Stefan would ask about the district chief's recent visit to Qalat and somehow the district chief saw fit to bring up Lt. Stefan's predecessor, whom apparently he frowned upon somewhat because he was too skinny. Not that I've seen a non-skinny Afghan yet, but apparently it's okay for them to be quite thin but it just doesn't wear well on us. (None of the soldiers I've seen since Kandahar, by the way, have had anything more than a slight pot belly.)

Apparently Military Intelligence was of the belief that a mortar round had recently flown over the camp and that the tube was in town somewhere, because Lt. Stefan asked the chief about that too. "Who can we pay to tell us?" he asked. But the boss man said he wanted to discuss that privately. Perhaps he didn't trust his own men. I don't know. The district chief also informed us without being asked that the townspeople liked us very much and that when American or Afghan soldiers disrupted their lives with raids "They blame on Taliban" for prompting them. Is it true, or did he say it to make us feel good? Who knows?

Mizan district chief (right) next to police commander with bird’s nest hair. Photo by Michael Fumento. Click image for larger view.
Still, I sense much more friendship and trust between us and the locals here than I did back in Iraq. Certainly the ones who work on the camp like us and we like them. Tonight during chow one showed up a bit late and a server announced in a booming voice: "Sorry, but all that's left is pork! Even the noodles are pork!" The Afghan laughed, as did we all.

Today, or really tonight as it were, is the first time this trip I really felt homesick. I looked up at the mountain range that surrounds the FOB and it just made me feel all the more isolated. There's one world in here and another world, the one I know and love, past those peaks. I miss my wife and cat terribly, and if I had kids I'd miss them too. Still, I'll be home soon enough. Not so for the men.

There still seems to be some confusion over whether tours here have been extended from 12 to 15 months as they have in Iraq, but I was uploading a blog the other day and couldn't help but hear a heart-wrenching conversation between a GI and his wife. Clearly the extensions are going to hurt morale, and I must say that both in Iraq and here morale has been quite good where I've been stationed. Strange to think that when those Twin Towers fell in 2001 not a single one of us imagined we'd be here at any point in time, much less all these years later. And, dare I say it, all these years from now.

My cat Aspen, hiding from the camera. Even she knows freedom isn't free. Photo by Michael Fumento. Click image for larger view.
But they have to fight and build. And I have to do what little I can to get the truth out about what's going on here. I mentioned in an earlier blog from Lagman that I was sharing a tiny room with two AP reporters. What I didn't say was that one believed 9/11 was a hoax and presumably the other one, who never took off his Che Guevera t-shirt, felt likewise. That's my opposition. Do you really trust what these guys are going to tell you and the people of other nations that will run their stories and show their video?

Michael Fumento has paid for this trip entirely out of pocket, including roundtrip airfare to Kuwait, war insurance, and virtually all his gear. Please support him via PayPal Donate or Amazon Honor System via the logos below.

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April 23, 2007 10:12 AM  ·  Permalink  ·  Afghanistan ~ Military

Welcome to Mizan!

By Michael Fumento

FOB Lagman administers four other, smaller FOBs. Mizan is one of them. I wanted to come to this one because so far this year it's the only one that's gotten in a fight with the Taliban -- although that will change as more of the bad guys start coming over the mountain passes. It's about a 20-minute helo ride from Lagman; isolated in a sense but not really.

NATO-operated Russian Mi-8 transport helo over. Photo by Michael Fumento. Click image for larger view.
It's not as Spartan here as I was originally led to believe. I was told in Kandahar they may not even have electricity and to juice up everything electronic I have before coming. Did but they have 120 here to spare. (Volts, that is.)

It's true that for a month they had no internet connection because lightning fried an antenna, but a techie came on the same helo I did and got it back up. Now he's my roommate until he can catch a flight out.

They have showers from water pumped in from a well dug two months ago, although it may dry up in a few months as the dry season continues and the water table drops. And -- woohoo! -- the water is heated. Foodwise, I was expecting little more than MREs but they usually have hot chow. It was pretty bad tonight, but I'm told that's by no means always the case.

My quarters are somewhat lacking in that they're a room that's really part of a hallway. So men tromp through constantly during the day and evening but when it's time for beddy bye they've pretty much stopped. Bathroom facilities are crude, as would be expected, but no big deal. You urinate into tubes dug into the ground and you do Number Two in an outhouse. The feces is then burned daily by some Afghans that were recently brought in.

Zabul mountains viewed from back of a Chinook helo. Photo by Michael Fumento. Click image for larger view.
What's truly impressive is how well protected this place is. I had no idea. Hesco barriers, sandbags, and concertina wire everywhere. Lots of Humvees with .50 cals and Mark-19 automatic grenade launchers and several mortar tubes of various sizes and ranges -- but range enough to be sure. We're in a valley here, which would be a real disadvantage if the enemy had artillery.

That's the mistake the French made when fighting the Viet Minh. They built Dien Bien Phu in a valley, thinking the enemy couldn't bring artillery tubes up the sides of the mountain. Wrong! War over.

But the Taliban have nothing heavier than small mortars and RPGs that theoretically might reach the camp but are far beyond aiming range and in any case this place is well protected against incoming fire. I'm told the camp, which was begun by the 173rd Airborne, is far better than just a few months ago and I believe it. They're building here all day long.

View of mountain range surround FOB Mizan with Blackhawk in background. Photo by Michael Fumento. Click image for larger view.
From the description I received at Lagman I got the idea this place might be susceptible to a sustained Taliban attack. Not a chance. The Taliban wouldn't even try. They keep to their hidden or semi-hidden paths and to the nearby town, and patrols from Mizan have to go out to try to nab them because they just aren't coming here.

I spent some time with the Afghans here, beginning when I was watching them burn the feces. That's always a great way to meet people. They invited me to their very nice quarters for some Chai tea. One spoke English passably well but another was an interpreter who came here from his home in California. He was, however, born in Afghanistan. They taught me some words in Pashtun and we discussed the war.

This RPG at Mizan exploded on firing, killing the operator. Photo by Michael Fumento. Click image for larger view.
Like the Americans I've talked to here, they're upbeat on winning but realize victory is far off. You hear the same basic line from everybody, American or Afghan. We need to keep killing Taliban and keep building up the economy.

Pakistan will almost certainly continue to provide safe haven for the foreign Taliban. (By the way, one Taliban is a "Talib;" "Taliban" is the plural form.)

But to the extent the economy provides good-paying jobs to the locals they will be able to resist being paid to fight the coalition forces. The Taliban will probably always be able to offer tempting payments to fire at Coalition forces, but not necessarily enough to make it worth a Pashtun's life.

Chinook over Mizan. Photo by Michael Fumento. Click image for larger view.
You get the idea that the local Pashtun are not particularly ideologically motivated to support the Taliban but I'll learn more about this soon. One way or another, they're going to enforce strict Islamic law or what they believe to be Islamic law. But that doesn't mean whipping men who don't grow beards or necessarily covering women with burkas -- although some of the women actually prefer to dress that way.

This is a truncated blog and I'll have more to write about Mizan; but I've got a computer ace now and am going to take advantage of it.

Later today I go into town and meet the locals. Should get some good stuff and pics.

Michael Fumento has paid for this trip entirely out of pocket, including roundtrip airfare to Kuwait, war insurance, and virtually all his gear. Please support him via PayPal Donate or Amazon Honor System via the logos below.

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April 22, 2007 11:01 AM  ·  Permalink  ·  Afghanistan ~ Military

A Depressing Day Visiting the Cops

By Michael Fumento

Courtesy of a small Romanian convoy, including the armored personnel carrier I traveled in, we visited four Afghan National Police (ANP) outposts along Highway One. Each had a complement of about 15-20 men and each outpost, to my mind, was pathetic.

An Afghan National Police Station with few defenses. Photo by Michael Fumento. Click image for larger view.
The first thing you notice about them is that while they have various levels of blast and anti-personnel protection, those levels are all poor. Ideally they would all be surrounded on the outside by razor concertina wire to keep the Taliban at a distance. The inside barriers would be blast protection, a combination of Hesco barriers (huge canvas bags filled with dirt) and sandbags.

In fact, I saw little wire and the Hescos and sandbags protected only part of the perimeter. Some of the buildings had sandbags on the roofs for protection against light mortars, but some didn't. The Afghans for the most part seemed blissfully unaware that they should have these defenses, although at one station they did request of the Romanians more Hescos and wire because they had virtually none.

In terms of weapons and ammunition, they were no better off. I won't give exact numbers for security reasons, but for their AK-47s they couldn't have enough ammo to sustain a decent firefight. At one station they were delighted to inform us not just how many AK magazines but that the magazines were actually completely filled! Ah, the little things in life. It doesn't help that although they have a reputation for bravery and even ferocity, Afghans, like Iraqis, have a tendency not to fire in controlled bursts but to pull the trigger and let fly with all 30 rounds in the hope that God will guide their bullets.

Afghan Police Officer. Photo by Michael Fumento. Click image for larger view.
All the outposts were assigned an RPG and one had two of them, but again with little ammunition. (This is something the Taliban must already know, because if the police had more rounds they would shoot them.)

Each station had one 7.62 PK machine gun. These are inferior to the RBKs the Romanians use but at least they sometimes had a decent supply of ammo for them. I got the feeling that the PK was the one thing keeping the Taliban from overrunning the outposts. Yet, not being overrun seemed near the outer limits of what these outposts could do.

At one station they told us, "'We ask in the villages why are you helping the Taliban?' and then they say 'They take our sons and brothers' and there's nothing we can do.'" At another: "We see Taliban driving by on motorcycles but we don't have good weapons to shoot them." The outposts are intentionally positioned high on hilltops and while a PK might be able to hit a stationary target, it would take one heck of a lucky shot to pull off an "Easy Rider" shot from that hilltop in the day. At night it would be all the harder.

All the Romanians can say for now is, "We'll try to give you enough ammo and enough weapons." But for the time being it's a pipe dream, although it shouldn't be. Consider that an AK bullet might cost 10 cents. That's $3 a magazine. For a fifteen-man station, we could provide them each another magazine for $45. Meanwhile, we drop bombs that cost $27,000.

Obviously the ANP stations are in no position to project force, but neither are they overrun very often. The Taliban only carry light weapons, nothing heavier than a PK or RPG with a few rounds. Maybe a small mortar tube but with no base plate, so it can't be fired accurately. That's fine for harassment but not much else. If the fighting did get thick, some ANP stations have radios, some phones, and some both and can call the Romanians. But the Taliban have timed how long it takes the Romanians to arrive and are careful to be gone by then. So the potential of the Romanian firepower is what really counts.

"I'm under arrest." Photo by Michael Fumento. Click image for larger view.
The cops themselves were a ragtag bunch, ranging in age from perhaps 14 to 70. But maybe they weren't quite that old; Afghans age at an amazing rate. It seems everybody is a kid or an old man with few in between. As to the women, well, you just don't see them in Pashtun areas. I've still only seen one. If they leave their mud homes it's only to go to the markets and they are virtually as covered as they would be under the Taliban.

A few of the police wore raggedy blue uniforms and some of the younger ones at one outpost wore winter thick gray uniforms that for all the world looked like what Johnny Reb wore. Even the caps looked like they were copied from civil war uniforms. But most of the police wore civilian clothes, which isn't good. A uniform gives a unit cohesion and it gives a man pride. Not for nothing did the British uniform used to be bright red with tall hats and all sorts of flashy trim. The fighting of that day called for marching straight into enemy muskets and the flashiness gave the soldiers courage.

But for all this, the most important deficiency is that none of the police we saw had been paid in three months. The most obvious problem with this from a tactical perspective is that it discourages recruiting and when those police do finally get paid it will encourage them to desert. Less obvious, except to anybody who knows the history of Afghanistan over the last several hundred years, is that bribes are more important than weapons.

They worked for the British, they helped the Russians greatly in winning support of many of the guerrillas to fight other guerrillas, and it certainly helped the Taliban in their near-conquest of the entire country. It was probably bribes that got Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar out of Tora Bora into Pakistan. For that matter, the conquest of the country from the Taliban began when the CIA flew in cache of $3 million (They would eventually spend many times that) to win over leaders to the Northern Alliance.

So the Taliban know that the most important weapon in their arsenal isn't that AK-47 or RPG, it's the wad of cash supplied by various Arab oil sheikhs, Islamic charity front groups, and Osama bin Laden himself.

Colorful binga truck. Photo by Michael Fumento. Click image for larger view.
More than that, a lack of funds encourages some police to sell what weapons they do have. I asked B Company's Executive Officer Lt. Wei if it would be possible to supply the police with DShKs (pronounced "dishka"), 12.7 millimeter anti-aircraft weapons that can also be used for ground combat and would clean the Taliban's clocks. He just about fell over backwards. "Because they're receiving no salaries, there would be tremendous temptation to sell those to the Taliban" he said. And unlike PK bullets, DShK rounds can cut right through Humvee armor.

Unless we want to stay in Afghanistan forever or risk turning the population against us if they start seeing us as an occupation force, we need to give the Afghan National Army and the National Police the material they need for protection, the weapons they need, the ammunition they need, and proper uniforms, but most importantly we need to pay them.

Camel crossing. Photo by Michael Fumento. Click image for larger view.
The two-hour ride back to Lagman from the furthest ANP station was somewhat eventful. First we saw a camel caravan, although they weren't carrying anything at the time. My wife always wanted to see photos of camels and donkeys from my Iraq visits, but I never saw anything but dogs, cats, and maybe coyotes. Enjoy, my dear!

Then we had a potential SVBIED incident (Suicide Vehicle Borne IED). A couple of trucks by the side of the road simply wouldn't move and we kept our distance waiting. Suddenly one darted towards us and the turret gunner of the APC opened up with the 14.5 mm machine gun. Eight rounds, bigger than .50 cals. I don't know what Afghans wear for underwear but I'll bet that poor driver's was warm and wet.

Michael Fumento has paid for this trip entirely out of pocket, including roundtrip airfare to Kuwait, war insurance, and virtually all his gear. Please support him via PayPal Donate or Amazon Honor System via the logos below.

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April 21, 2007 01:43 PM  ·  Permalink  ·  Afghanistan ~ Iraq

"Carpathian's Hawks," the Romanian 182nd Infantry Battalion

By Michael Fumento

There are an amazing 37 nations taking part in the war in Afghanistan. Want to hear something even more amazing? Out of all those countries, a grand total of six are willing to send their troops into combat: The United States, Britain, Canada, Estonia (which is smaller than several American cities), the Netherlands and Romania. Italy keeps its troops far from combat, yet their very presence here almost toppled the Italian government. Turkish soldiers have an excellent reputation for fighting and it would help that they are Muslim. But no go.

Surrounded by Romanians. Photo by Michael Fumento. Click image for larger view.
The same for such large nations as France and Spain, although the French did boast recently -- I'm not making this up -- that they dropped a single 25-pound bomb in support of Canadian fighters. I'll bet it missed. Spain, of course, suffered a major al Qaeda attack on its subway system. Given a chance to hit back, they say: "No queremos." Germany, which once held almost all of continental Europe and part of Africa and Russia under its jackboot, wants to be nowhere near Taliban or al Qaeda bullets.

Here at Lagman FOB we have soldiers from the U.S., a few from the Afghan National Army, four technicians from the Netherlands about to be replaced by Brits, and there's an Arab nation that has a medical team here but their government is very sensitive about their presence and I've been asked not to identify them. And finally, we have the guys who run the show here: the 500-member Romanian 182nd Infantry Battalion, labeled "Carpathian's Hawks." The reference is to the mountain range, which virtually encircles the country.

Commanding the 812th is Maj. Ovidiu Liviu Uifaleanu. His troops launch more than 50 missions a week, most supporting the Afghan National Police who protect the vital route of Highway 1, which didn't use to be so important until it was converted from secondary road to a fine piece of asphalt highway. It goes directly from Qalat to Kandahar but also tremendously cuts the time needed to get to Kabul.

An array of Romanian small arms, with a Dragunov 7.62 sniper rifle in foreground. Photo by Michael Fumento. Click image for larger view.
The Taliban (which here is a generalized term for the enemy, be they Afghan, Pakistani, Chechen, or Arab) know they don't have the strength to hold on to a piece of it for any length of time, but they make regular efforts to overcome Afghan police posts either with weapons or with bribes. They can then exact bribes from travelers or, far worse, kidnap them. The 812th goes from post to post finding out what they need (pretty much everything) and with an armored quick reaction force. Actual combat is rare because the Romanians firepower is overwhelming, but they did have a good shoot-'em-up with the Taliban a few weeks ago.

The Romanians travel in new American Humvees (they just took possession of six more) or in Russian-style but Romanian-made armored personnel carriers (APCs). (All of their weapons are also made in Romania, including the interestingly-named antitank guided missile system, the FAGOT.) During a live fire exercise they allowed me to fire both the mounted guns on the APCs, the 14.5 millimeter, which is similar to our M-2 .50 caliber and a 7.62 machine gun which is similar to the M-240s we sometimes mount on our Humvees.

The Romanians believe far more in comfort than do the Americans. They either wear rolled-up sleeves on their uniform jackets or simply a t-shirt that has the same camouflage pattern as the uniform. They also often wear shorts. Americans wear their sleeves down at all times and the only shorts they have are boxers and briefs. During their live-fire exercise, the Romanians didn't wear body armor. During the American live-fire exercise I went on the next day we did wear body armor because that's what you're going to be wearing in combat.

APCs and a Humvee. Photo by Michael Fumento. Click image for larger view.
Carpathian's Hawks was constituted in 1995, not long after the country's anti-communist revolution. It has seen service in Angola, southern Iraq and in Afghanistan from 202-2003. It's currently in the middle of a six-month mission here, and will be replaced by another Romanian unit when it leaves.

(Other Romanian units have served in southern Iraq, including at a base camp called "Dracula." While Dracula or Vlad Tepes is seen as a figurative or literal monster in much of the West, he's a hero in Romania because the rather unorthodox methods of Vlad the Impaler did keep the advancing Turkish empire at bay. Say what you will about old Dracula, but without him Romania would probably be Muslim today instead of being overwhelming Christian Orthodox.)

When I asked the Major (and that's what I call him, for fear of the 100 percent probability of mispronouncing his name) why Romania is fighting here when nations with vastly larger militaries refuse to fire a shot in anger, he gives a soldier's answer. "At higher echelons they make those decisions," he says. But "We are keeping our promise as a member of NATO." Aha! But Romania didn't join NATO until 2004. "Then," he explains, "we were keeping our promise as a membership of the Partnership for Peace." That organization, he says, is (and these are my words), sort of a prep school for NATO.

On the firing range (the closest soldier has an empty RPG). Photo by Michael Fumento. Click image for larger view.
I've got a different answer, though. Aside from Great Britain, the major nations of Europe have grown decadent. Even though several of them face a far greater threat from radical Islam than the U.S. or Romania, they're quite happy to let others do the fighting and dying. Romania, after years of involuntary servitude in the Soviet empire, wants very much to be a part of the world community. Countries like France and Germany want to lead the world community but won't spend a drop of blood in doing so.

In any case, God bless the Romanians. I'm going on patrol with them tomorrow and will blog on it.

Michael Fumento has paid for this trip entirely out of pocket, including roundtrip airfare to Kuwait, war insurance, and virtually all his gear. Please support him via PayPal Donate or Amazon Honor System via the logos below.

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April 19, 2007 09:48 AM  ·  Permalink  ·  Afghanistan ~ Military

Forgotten War, Shoestring War

By Michael Fumento

First an update on kinetics, to use the euphemism for violence. Just before I left the States, a unit of the Afghan National Army (ANA) got zapped in what may be the opening of the Taliban spring offensive. Seventeen casualties were evacuated here to FOB Lagman. The aid station was overwhelmed and regular soldiers pitched in. "I was stuffing gauze into bullet holes," 1st. Lt. and Company Executive Officer Keith Wei told me, wincing as he said it. Although one was dead on arrival, the remainder survived. Here, as in Iraq, if you make it to a medic you're chances of survival are excellent.

Romanian convoy back from vital mission (bringing me to Lagman). Photo by Michael Fumento. Click image for larger view.
Within days, the Taliban tried a similar ambush but far different results. The Americans accompanying the Afghans called in close air support, killing about 35 Taliban. Then the Taliban scored blood, killing Spc. Conor Masterson of B Company, a medic, and wounding two others when an IED hit their Humvee. It was B Company's first death since it deployed here in January.

Also, apparently they have cobras here -- by which I do not mean Marine gunship helicopters but the kind that slither, hiss, and if you're unfortunate bite. It's not exactly kinetics, but it's something most Americans would find unsettling, especially since the doctor across the way from me, Capt. Slusher, assures me we have no anti-venom. In any case, it's good incentive to keep the place clean because trash brings rodents and rodents bring snakes. They also have the ugliest beetles here I've ever seen. The little monsters fly and they bite. I think they work for al Qaeda.

An Al Qaeda beetle. Photo by Michael Fumento. Click image for larger view.
B Company has about 160 men, divided into three platoons plus a squad for headquarters. Back in Germany, where 1-4 is based, the unit usually acts as adversaries during war games. In recent years, they've played guerrillas. So that gives them special expertise in thinking like the enemy. In addition to running patrols out of here in Qalat they operate four other tiny FOBs spread throughout the province, plus a firebase with howitzers.Those little FOBs and the firebase are the heart of B Company's operation.

These little FOBs are about the size of combat operation posts (COPs) I wrote about in Ramadi and that are a major part of Gen. David Petraeus's plan to pacify Baghdad, but one of the most important aspects of COPs is that they are close enough to each other or the mother FOB that they can quickly receive support. These are way too far apart to for that. If they're attacked in force -- and it wouldn't be all that hard for the Taliban and al Qaeda to hit them with superior numbers -- by the time reinforcement could arrive it would be much too late. Close air support is all they can rely on.

The only one of these FOBs that's seen combat since the unit deployed is FOB Mizan; so I asked to be sent there. Unfortunately, the helo that was to bring me out there was supposed to be carrying a general in here. The general decided not to come so there went my ride. I'll get to another outlying FOB, but not for at least two more days.

This hearkens to a subject I teased at in the first blog. I commented in my previous blog about what a nasty FOB Lagman is. In Iraq, if you ask for a helo you get one. Actually, you get two since they usually fly in pairs for safety reasons. Here, theoretically, getting a helo should be easier because they're allowed to fly during the day. There just aren't that many birds in the Afghan theater. So why so few helos and why is this place so crummy?

An Army Apache gunship over Lagman's LZ. Photo by Michael Fumento. Click image for larger view.
Part of Lagman's problem might be mismanagement. I've really gotten to like the Romanians; they're exceedingly friendly. But they might be poor administrators. But mostly the helo problem and the Lagman problem is representative of the war effort here. We're trying to win this war on a shoestring; there simply aren't enough men here and there isn't enough money.
FOB Lagman HQ, flying the Romanian, Afghan, and American flags. Photo by Michael Fumento. Click image for larger view.
But there's no money. "We know how to win here," says Wei. "But we're so shorthanded. Every platoon we have is covering what used to be a company-sized sector." But they no longer have those men.

"You can see victory on the horizon but we don't have the means to get there."

He says the ANA can fight but they're demoralized because "Some haven't been paid in months." A report from the D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies that I wrote about states that even when they are paid, "Income for those in the lower ranks remains insufficient to meet more than the most basic needs. ANA soldiers now receive $100 month as a new recruit for a three-year commitment, up from $70 month." However, "In some reported cases, the Taliban are paying up to $12 a day, three times as much as the ANA field soldiers, and there is evidence of defection from the national security forces to the Taliban ranks."

The Taliban and al Qaeda know the value of money and they have plenty of it. They didn't conquer most of Afghanistan through fighting ability, but rather through wheeling and dealing with various warlords, backstabbing of others, and throwing around copious amounts of bribe money.

A lack of money is also strapping the hearts and minds aspect of the war. "It takes four weeks here just to get cement," Wei says. "We need to help build and to provide security, but we just don't have the funds. Everybody here understands what needs to be done but their hands are tied by a lack of resources in both funds and people. We could pacify Zabul in probably a year if they pumped money into here like they do Iraq."

Aye and there's the rub. Even before 9/11 military strategists warned that we no longer had the ability to fight two wars at once, that at best we could fight one and keep the other in a holding pattern. That's what it appears we're doing here. But what if the holding pattern doesn't hold?

Michael Fumento has paid for this trip entirely out of pocket, including roundtrip airfare to Kuwait, war insurance, and virtually all his gear. Please support him via PayPal Donate or Amazon Honor System via the logos below.

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April 18, 2007 10:53 AM  ·  Permalink  ·  Afghanistan ~ Military

Forward Operating Base Lagman, Afghanistan

By Michael Fumento

After three embeds in Al Anbar, what was once the forgotten part of Iraq, it was time to visit the "Forgotten War." Afghanistan. A commercial flight brings me to Kuwait International Airport, then a short ride to Ali Al Salem Air Force Base (AFB), and the very next day a relatively comfortable C-17 cargo jet brings me to Bagram AFB in Afghanistan.

The sun rises over the Romanian convoy. Photo by Michael Fumento. Click image for larger view.
I'm waiting at the Pat Tillman USO center (named after the football star who gave up almost everything after 9/11 to become a Ranger and then did give up everything when he lost his life in Afghanistan. I shouldn't have been surprised but was when I ran into my friend and fellow citizen embed Andrew Lubin, a Marine vet and fellow citizen embed. I met him last October in Baghdad and then we crossed paths again in Ramadi. So suddenly we're in the same building in Afghanistan. Yeah, it is a small world after all.

Andrew gets me signed up for the C-130 prop transport to Kandahar AFB, then we head over to the public affairs office (PAO) that all embeds need to report to, grab a quick breakfast, and within hours I'm in Kandahar with Andrew heading back to Kuwait to grab a plane for al Anbar. I'll probably run into him again in a few weeks.

Originally I was told my assignment was in Kandahar province, but it isn't. Rather it's in Zabul Province, a Taliban gateway between Pakistan and Kandahar. The name of the base camp is FOF Lagman, just outside Qalat. Here's an overview of Lagman. Zabul is on the Pakistani border and relatively small so all of it is near the mountain passes that the Taliban and Al Qaeda will be coming through. "With its sparse population, insecure border with Pakistan and little central authority, Zabul is a fertile ground for insurgents fighting against the current Afghan government," according to Wikipedia.

The Humvee turret gunner, manning a 7.62 millimeter RBK machine gun. Photo by Michael Fumento. Click image for larger view. Click image for larger view.
Like Kandahar, Zabul is Pashtun, the tribe from which the Taliban derive support. At Kandahar AFB, the PAO says I have two choices to get to FOB Lagman and my assignment with 1st Battalion, 4th Infantry Brigade, a unit based out of Germany. I can wait two days and take a 20-minute helicopter ride or go by convoy the next day with Romanian soldiers. I opt for the convoy, only to later be informed it leaves at 0400, which means I have to get up at 0300; a.k.a., way too early for me. What the heck is wrong with these Romanian people anyway? They're yawning as much as I am. Still, at some point on Route 1 to Qalat sun finally pops up and I can finally get to work, snapping photos of the Afghan countryside through a window that I fastidiously cleaned.

The Romanians are a professional bunch, and Romania is one of only five countries conducting combat operations here besides the Americans. Romanian is a romance language, but it's nonetheless alien to a speaker of French or Spanish. After awhile, though, I started picking out Italian words here and there. When I also slowly started to learn that all three men in the Humvee with me spoke some English they told me that Italian is indeed the closest language to their language. Inevitably they took the opportunity to inform me Romania is where the Romans fled when the western empire finally collapsed. I think that's mostly mythological, that most Romans probably stayed right in Italy. Still, Romania is a closer place to flee to than, say, Sweden, and the country's name does lend itself to the story.

Colorful Afghan tents dot the countryside. Photo by Michael Fumento. Click image for larger view.
Turns out Romanians run the show at Lagman, with the 1-4 and others providing a supporting role. In brief, this place is a defecation-hole. It's worse than where I spent my last two embeds, Camp Corregidor in Ramadi, which itself had a notorious reputation. The one way this place is better is that it doesn't take mortar rounds and hence you don't need to wear body armor within the wire. I'm squeezed like a sardine with two AP reporters in a room meant for one very small person. There is a PX, but it goes out of business today. Corregidor acquired a PX between my two embeds there, plus a market run by locals. There are all of four male showers, two with curtains missing. There are only two computers with Internet connections, a serious problem for me. Part of the place is literally made of mud. Yeah, I knew not to expect the Ritz-Carleton but I'm rather shocked that after five years this place is so crude. But it's a reason that concerns the entire war effort and you'll hear about it in future installments.

And now a word from our sponsor. That's me. This trip and these blogs to help readers like you remember the forgotten war is paid for entirely out of my own pocket. To name just the three largest expenses, airfare to Kuwait was $1,200. War insurance to cover injuries by hostile action was $775, and there's not even any life insurance in that. A video camera replacement for the one destroyed in an irrigation canal in Ramadi, Iraq was $275. Hitting that PayPal or Amazon.com button at the bottom of this blog will help pay part of that plane ticket, perhaps a day's worth of war insurance, or piece of that video camera.

Graves covered with stones and marked by colorful cloths are frequently seen by the road. Photo by Michael Fumento. Click image for larger view.
The number of citizen embeds who because they pay their own way, are beholden to no one, and can report and photograph the truth exactly as they see it has shrunk to a mere handful. As hard as we might try we cannot hope to broadly counter the mis- and disinformation spouted by the MSM. It is with humility, and not hubris, that I say we need many times the citizen embeds we have and yet we can expect the number to keep shrinking. For my part, I should like to remain within that number and keep my reputation for going to not the most comfortable or safest places but the least comfortable and most dangerous. That's where the real news about our soldiers is being made.

Michael Fumento has paid for this trip entirely out of pocket, including roundtrip airfare to Kuwait, war insurance, and virtually all his gear. Please support him via PayPal Donate or Amazon Honor System via the logos below.

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April 17, 2007 11:20 AM  ·  Permalink  ·  Afghanistan ~ Military

Future weapons against malaria - and the one we have now

By Michael Fumento

O death, where is thy sting? Far too often it comes at the end of a mosquito's proboscis. The worst mosquito-borne disease, malaria, infects about 400 million people worldwide each year (90 percent in sub-Saharan Africa) and kills about 1.3 million of them. Compare that to the histrionics we've suffered over avian flu, which as of 2 April had infected 25 people and killed 12 this year. Or SARS, which killed 774 people worldwide before petering out.

As I write in TCS Daily, biotechnology may eventually come to the rescue. Scientists have announced they've built a better mosquito, one that doesn't become infected with the parasite that causes malaria. Ultimately, it's hoped, these mosquitoes will outbreed natural ones. A biotech malaria vaccine is also in the works. Aye, but there's the rub. A malaria vaccine has been in the works for decades. For now what we need is something that's tried and true and readily available. Yes, that means insecticides and yes that means DDT. Fortunately, pro-DDT activists are finally starting to gain the upper hand over spoiled brat environmentalists who think the deaths of black- and brown-skinned people don't count and know nothing more about DDT than that Rachel Carson made all sorts of horrible claims about it of which none have proved true.

April 2, 2007 09:30 PM  ·  Permalink  ·  Diseases (other than AIDS and cancer) ~ Environment