July 23, 2015

Turks to allow coalition access to Turkish air base - finally

US Air Force F-16 with both air-to-air and air-to ground munitions

After months of negotiations - and clashes between its troops and fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) on the Syrian border - Turkey has agreed to allow the United States to launch airstrikes from the large NATO air base in Incirlik.

There were rumors last fall that the Turks were going to allow the Americans to use the base, but an agreement fell through because of Turkish perceptions of the lack of commitment on the part of the Obama Administration to the removal of the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Asad. The Turks have always wanted American support for its efforts to oust al-Asad.

It is not clear what, if any, concessions were made to the Turks other than an agreement to assist Turkey in creating a buffer zone inside northern Syria.

This is a welcome development - it significantly reduces the flight time from the airbases currently being used in Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. Not only can the aircraft arrive in the target area faster, they are able to remain in the area for longer periods of time dropping significantly more ordnance. The shorter flight distance also reduces the number of aerial refuelings needed, lessening the demands on the heavily used tanker aircraft fleet.

Had coalition aircraft been able to stage from Incirlik during the fighting in the Kobani area last year and again early this year, the flight distance to target would have been as short as 165 miles versus the 800 to 1500 miles using bases in Jordan and the Gulf. The battle for the city may have been shortened significantly.

Access to Incirlik will allow increased air operations against ISIS's self-proclaimed capital at al-Raqqah in northern Syria, just 200 miles from the airbase. Translated into time, that means that American pilots can put weapons on targets in the ISIS capital in as little as 50 minutes.

Aircraft based in southern Turkey can also react more quickly to the changing situation on the ground in both northern Syria and western Iraq. The reaction time to fast-changing events on the ground in northern Syria can be measured now in minutes, not hours. This becomes even more important as ISIS forces move closer to Aleppo, Syria's largest city.

According to press reports, the United States will operate both manned aircraft and Predator drones from Incirlik - at least two of the Predators will be armed with Hellfire missiles. It was an MQ-1 Predator that recently (July 8) killed a senior al-Qa'idah operative about 20 miles west of Aleppo, or just 90 miles from Incirlik. These operations will be much easier to launch from the Turkish base - more quickly and likely more effectively.

The Turks have stated that they still will not participate in coalition air operations, using their air assets only in response to threats to Turkey, its people or its armed forces. They may provide tactical air controllers inside Syria to call in American airstrikes. Although we would prefer to have Turkish troops and pilots directly involved, use of Incirlik is a welcome change.

I have often complained about the lack of support for coalition operations by the Turks. My exact words were, "If Turkey wants to be a NATO ally, they need to start acting like a NATO ally." It appears that they are - finally.

July 14, 2015

REDUX: "Fallout of a bad nuclear deal with Iran" and "The nuclear deal with Iran - the view from Riyadh"

As you all know, the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany, also called the P5+1, concluded an agreement with Iran that the Obama Administration claims blocks all of the possible paths for Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon. Most analysts familiar with the Middle East and the Iranians believe this is fantasy.

I wrote an article about this when the announcement was made. You have probably read it - if not - Iran Nuclear Deal - Lingering Concerns.

Much of my opinion and analysis in that article is based on my writings earlier this year, although I have been writing about the threat posed by the Iranian nuclear weapons program (let's call it what it is, shall we?) for almost a decade. After the signing of what I consider a bad deal, I was asked to re-post two articles from earlier this year.

To preclude you having to connect to external links, I have included the text of the two articles here.


Fallout of a bad nuclear deal with Iran (March 17, 2015)

Fallout of a nuclear-armed Iran?

Recent polls taken in the United States indicate that an overwhelming majority of Americans - between 70 and 80 percent - do not believe that the proposed agreement between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the P5+1* (United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, China and Germany) will prevent Iran from eventually acquiring a nuclear weapons capability. Despite Presidential spokesperson Josh Earnest's claims to the contrary, few people believe President Obama "is driving a hard bargain."

The proposed agreement will provide Iran immediate sanctions relief, permit them to legally enrich uranium to the five percent level, and lift all restrictions on Iran's nuclear program after a ten year period of compliance. To most observers (including this one), that sounds like a great deal for Iran, and a bad deal for the rest of the world - not exactly the result of a "hard bargain."

The Administration realizes that neither the majority of the American people nor the Congress support the "hard bargain" the President's team is negotiating with Iran. Continuing in the vernacular, most Americans believe that instead of a "hard bargain," the President is "giving away the farm."

I believe that lack of popular support is the reason why the United States and some of its European allies are beginning talks in the United Nations (UN) to forge a Security Council resolution to remove UN sanctions on Iran if a nuclear deal is reached. The Administration, led by Secretary of State John Kerry, is trying to circumvent Congress and in effect the American people to make a deal with Iran. Perhaps the State Department deputy spokesperson was right in her condescension - we American people just don't understand the "nuances" of these negotiations.

I have been forthright and forceful in my condemnation of what I believe is an unwise agreement with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Although the President has "convinced" (read: directed) his Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Jim Clapper to omit references to Iran (as well as its proxy in Lebanon - Hizballah) from the latest annual threat assessment delivered to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Iran remains the world's primary state sponsor of terrorism.

Coincidence? I have known General Jim Clapper for four decades - he does not often make errors of omission. This was a deliberate attempt to deflect attention from Iran at a time when the Administration is desperate to reach a deal, any deal, with the mullahs in Tehran. (Read DNI Clapper's statement.)

As I said, I have written on this topic on numerous occasions. The Administration's desire to appease the Iranians is not new. Here are a few of my previous articles, in chronological order, and a quote from each:

Off to the races - Saudi Arabia to develop nuclear energy (April 17, 2010). Quote: "Saudi Arabia is looking across the Persian Gulf at what is likely the world's next nuclear-armed nation. The Saudis, long-time American allies, are unsure of the direction of American foreign policy in the region and probably think they may need something to counter Iran's accession as a regional power. A Saudi nuclear energy research and development center is the logical answer - after all, that's how Iran's program got started."

Mr President - take a lesson from the UAE ambassador (July 7, 2010). Quote: "Here is where [the UAE ambassador] gets even clearer: 'We cannot live with a nuclear Iran. The United States may be able to live with it; we can't.' If the United States will not fulfill its traditional leadership role in the region - which includes protection for the Gulf Arab states - these states will be forced to either make an accommodation with Iran, or in the case of larger countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, acquire their own nuclear arsenal."

"Fallout" from the Iranian nuclear program (August 28, 2010). Quote: "As Iran continues to develop its nuclear programs - power and weapons - it is only logical for other nations in the region to do the same. It is just a matter of time before we see more nuclear-armed states in this volatile region. This is the 'fallout' of Tehran's program."

The coming nuclear arms race in the Middle East (December 5, 2011). Quote: "The King told [National Security Advisor] General Jones that if Iran succeeded in developing nuclear weapons, everyone in the region would do the same, including Saudi Arabia. The King is convinced that current U.S. engagement efforts with Tehran will not succeed."

The "fallout" of a bad deal, or possibly any deal short of Iran scrapping its nuclear program, is the triggering of an arms race in the region. The major countries in the region - Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey - two Arab and all three Sunni Muslim - are not going to sit idly while Iran develops the capability to develop nuclear weapons to mount atop its huge arsenal of ballistic missiles. The three powers are wary of a Persian, Shi'a state sponsor of terrorism armed with nuclear weapons.

This deal, a bad one in my judgment, does nothing to assuage those fears.
* The P5+1 group comprises the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia and China) plus Germany.


The nuclear deal with Iran - the view from Riyadh (April 5, 2015)

King Salman bin 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud

It appears almost inevitable that the Obama Administration is going to push through the completion of what many to consider to be a mediocre-at-best agreement with the Islamic Republic of Iran over its nuclear program. Regardless of the hard sales pitches by both the President and Secretary of State John Kerry, the Iranians remain focused on the acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability. I believe they will ultimately be successful.

I am not the only one that believes that the Iranians will eventually have nuclear weapons - it already has the ballistic missiles to deliver them. One need only look to the west across the Persian Gulf to find the country (with the understandable exception of Israel) most concerned with the Iranian nuclear arms program - the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

The Saudis have been wary of Iran since the 1979 revolution and Tehran's desire to export that revolution throughout the region. Since 1982 when Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Syria and Lebanon contingent (forerunner of today's Qods Force) began operations in Lebanon and created Hizballah, the Iranians have been a major force in the politics of both countries.

After the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the subsequent civil war, Iran has meddled incessantly in Iraqi politics - after the premature removal of American forces in 2011, Iran became the major power broker in the country. Some say it remains that to this day.

The recent and ongoing crisis in Yemen has Tehran's handwriting all over it. The Shi'a Houthi group is sponsored, equipped and funded by the Iranians. If you are sitting in Riyadh, you see Iran wielding significant influence in four Arab capitals - Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad and now Sana'. Iran is constantly displaying new, indigenous weapons, including more capable and longer range ballistic missiles.

The Saudis have reason to worry - they, like most rational observers of Middle East events, are convinced that Iran will at some point in the next few years, possess nuclear weapons.

The Saudi concern with a potentially nuclear-armed Iran is nothing new. I wrote an article in late 2011 - The coming nuclear arms race in the Middle East (December 5, 2011). From that article:

Saudi Arabia
The former director of Saudi Arabia's intelligence service stated this week that if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, then the Kingdom may be forced to as well. Although Prince Turki al-Faysal couched his remarks by first citing the world's failure to convince Israel to abandon its nuclear weapons, then casually adding "as well as Iran," his meaning was perfectly clear - if Iran develops them, we'll buy our own. Saudi Arabia is currently planning to build 16 nuclear reactors to generate electricity. The weapons program would be an easy add-on, although the Kingdom is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Saudi interest in a nuclear weapons capability is not new. In 1987, the Saudis purchased CSS-2 missiles from China; the missiles are designed to carry a nuclear warhead. Although the Saudis did not acquire that capability, they did express interest in a joint research and development program with Pakistan. If the Saudis decide to move ahead with a nuclear weapons capability, they have the requisite infrastructure already in place.

While I deplore the release of classified documents by the Wikileaks crowd, some of the information is interesting. Here is an excerpt from a February 2010 cable from the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh to the Secretary of State. (10RIYADH178, SCENESETTER FOR SECRETARY CLINTON'S FEB 15-16 VISIT TO SAUDI ARABIA, classified SECRET NOFORN. Read the entire cable here.)

9. (S/NF) COUNTERING IRAN: We expect that Saudi Arabia will continue to develop its ties with China, in part to counterbalance relations with the West. While the King's preference is to cooperate with the U.S., he has concluded that he needs to proceed with his own strategy to counter Iranian influence in the region, which includes rebuilding Riyadh-Cairo-Damascus coordination, supporting Palestinian reconciliation, supporting the Yemeni government, and expanding relations with non-traditional partners such as Russia, China, and India to create diplomatic and economic pressure on Iran that do not directly depend on U.S. help. The King told General Jones that if Iran succeeded in developing nuclear weapons, everyone in the region would do the same, including Saudi Arabia.

10. (S/NF) The King is convinced that current U.S. engagement efforts with Tehran will not succeed; he is likely to feel grimly vindicated in his view by Ahmadinejad's February 11 boast that having successfully enriched uranium to a level of 20 percent, Iran "is now a nuclear nation." The King told General Jones that Iranian internal turmoil presented an opportunity to weaken the regime -- which he encouraged -- but he also urged that this be done covertly and stressed that public statements in support of the reformers were counterproductive. The King assesses that sanctions could help weaken the government, but only if they are strong and sustained. The King will want you to elaborate on the President's statement that the time for sanctions has come. He will also want to hear our plans for bolstering Gulf defenses vis-a-vis Iran. (The King has invited General Petraeus to his desert camp for discussion on this topic on Tuesday.)


Although some of the situation in the Middle East has changed since I wrote that, such as the hope that Syria could be part of a counter to Iran and the fact that there is a new king in Saudi Arabia, the rest still holds true. I assess that new Saudi King Salman has already given the orders to the new Minister of Defense and Aviation (his son), to scope out what it would take to acquire at least the same capability as Iran.

Of course, by doing so the Saudis may run afoul of the Obama Administration. However, the Administration has proven that they are willing to allow other countries to enrich uranium in contravention of international agreements with little consequence.

If you are living in the Persian Gulf region, the overly optimistic assurances from President Obama and Secretary Kerry that their agreement with Iran will prevent the Iranians from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability ring hollow.

If I was King Salman, I would do the same thing.


Iran Nuclear Deal - Lingering Concerns

The Obama Administration is touting the conclusion of "the historic deal that will prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon." Preventing the Islamic Republic of Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons is critical to any hope for preventing the entire Middle East from erupting into a conflagration. The White House has issued a slick spin of the deal on its website. You can read the actual text for yourself.

While you read the White House version of reality, take a look at the photograph above. It tells us just who we are being asked to believe has negotiated in good faith - those are officially sanctioned Iranian demonstrations calling for death to America, Israel, United Kingdom, the House of Sa'ud (Saudi Arabia) and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Let me first say that I hope that this deal works. A nuclear weapon in the hands of the mullahs in Tehran would be a disaster, not just for the Middle East, but the entire world. That said, I am concerned that the deal as structured may not prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability. I am not confident that this Administration has negotiated the type of agreement that will be successful.

Why do I say that? I have been straight-forward in my assessment that since he took office in 2009, President Obama sought to curry favor with the Islamic regime in Iran, despite the enmity and hostility from that regime. His attempts to make inroads with the leadership in Tehran were consistently rebuffed.

It was not until he directed his negotiators, including current Secretary of State John Kerry, to make concession after concession in the nuclear talks - caving on virtually every negotiating point - that the Iranians began to listen to Barack Obama. The Iranian leadership likely assessed - correctly, in my opinion - that Obama was desperate for a deal with Iran, for whatever reason.

It appears to me that the goal of the negotiations was to reach a deal - any deal - with Iran rather than actually achieving the stated objective of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Otherwise, Obama would have stood firm on what we were all told were non-negotiable conditions - sanctions relief only after compliance, anytime and anywhere inspections, continued arms embargo, etc.

So now we have an agreement, technically, a joint comprehensive plan of action. What has changed? Does anyone actually believe that the Iranians have given up their quest for a nuclear weapons capability? What is the end-goal of their nuclear research and development program? Is this Administration ready to believe that Iran is only interested in a nuclear electrical power generation system?

That thought might be the fiction that Kerry and Obama have bought into, but the analysis from specialists at the government's own research laboratories - specifically Frank Pabian at the Los Alamos National Laboratory - indicates that the Iranian effort is much too small for effective power generation, but perfectly suited for a nuclear weapons program. Pabian further postulated as far back as 2008 that if Iran was actually developing a civilian nuclear power program, there was no need to use front companies and locate the facilities in hardened underground bunkers.

What was the rush to conclude a deal? Sanctions were taking a toll on Iran - the Iranians needed this agreement far more than we did. I am struck by the timing of these hurried negotiations. Just a few months ago, President Obama told the American people that our 50-year old policy toward Cuba was not working and it needed to change.

Contrast that with our policy toward Iran - what we had in place was working. The sanctions protocols had brought the Iranians to the table - it was obvious to anyone with a modicum of experience in the Middle East that Iran was in a position of weakness.

The answer to my last question is tied to the U.S. presidential election cycle. In November 2016, the Americans will elect a new president. Barack Obama will leave office in January 2017 - what will he have to show for it? Thus far, he has enjoyed a few domestic policy successes, all of them controversial and under threat of repeal should the Democrats lose the White House next year.

Likewise, the President's foreign policy is in severe disarray, especially in the Middle East. This agreement with the Iranians - also a controversial "success" - will serve as his legacy assuming it is not overruled by a Congress representing an overwhelmingly skeptical American public, or cancelled by a Republican president in the future.

Here is how the Iranians see the agreement. This is from IRNA, the official Islamic Republic News Agency:

- World powers have recognized Iran’s peaceful nuclear program and are to respect the nuclear rights of Iranian nation within international conventions.

- The Islamic Republic of Iran is to be recognized as a nuclear technology power authorized to have peaceful nuclear programs such as complete nuclear fuel cycle and enrichment to be identified by the United Nations.

- All unfair sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council including economic and financial sanctions on Iran are to be lifted as per the agreement and through issuance of a new resolution by the United Nations Security Council.

- All nuclear installations and sites are to continue their work contrary to the early demands of the other party, none of them will be dismantled.

- The policy on preventing enrichment uranium is now failed, and Iran will go ahead with its enrichment program.

- Iran’s nuclear infrastructure will remain intact, no centrifuges will be dismantled and research and development on key and advanced centrifuges will continue.

They did not mention that the arms embargo will be lifted in five years, and the missile embargo in eight years.

I don't see how this is a win for the United States. I fear this is a repeat of a similar deal struck by President Bill Clinton with North Korea in 1994; we all know how that turned out. Although there are a variety of issues that need to be addressed with Iran, we have now given up any leverage we had. For example, what about Iran's continued support for terrorism, and what about the Americans currently being held in Iran? Have President Obama and Secretary Kerry sacrificed them on the altar of legacy?

As I said, I hope this agreement stops the Iranians from acquiring nuclear weapons, but having worked in the region and on the Iran issue for decades, I fear the mullahs have outmaneuvered Messrs Obama and Kerry - again.

June 29, 2015

Syrian regime might use chemical weapons - how is that possible?

In what can only be regarded as an embarrassing turn of events for the Obama Administration, U.S. intelligence agencies are warning that the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Asad may again resort to the use of chemical weapons against Syrian rebel forces, or the forces of the al-Qa'idah affiliate in Syria known as Jabhat al-Nusra (the Victory Front) and possibly the fighters of the so-called "The Islamic State" (more commonly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS).

Syrian forces are under pressure as they try to fight on multiple fronts against the various groups arrayed against the regime. Although the anti-regime forces usually do not cooperate with each other, or coordinate their operations against the Syrian army, nonetheless they are taking a toll on the Syrian military. The recent introduction of the American-made TOW anti-tank guided missile has increased the capabilities of at least one of the anti-regime forces against Syria's army and militias.

Why is this intelligence assessment embarrassing to the Obama Administration?

In the summer of 2013, Syrian forces conducted chemical attacks on Free Syrian Army positions in the eastern suburbs of Damascus called the East Ghutah. The chemical used in the attacks was the nerve agent sarin (known as GB in the chemical warfare community), delivered by artillery rockets. Almost 1,500 people - mostly innocent civilians - were killed in the attacks.

Only months earlier, President Obama stated in a news conference that if the United States intelligence community detected the movement of Syrian chemical weapons from storage depots, he would be inclined to take action to preclude the Syrian regime's use of the weapons.

Syrian President Bashar al-Asad in effect called his bluff in August by not only moving chemical weapons from their depots, but actually firing them from garrisons of the Republican Guard atop a mountain overlooking Damascus. (See my articles on these attacks: Syrian Chemical Weapons Strikes - Random Attacks or Viable Military Targets?, and Syria: United Nations report does not blame the regime for chemical weapons use - really?)

Although it appeared that President Obama was waffling in his decision to take the military action he had threatened, his advisers warned him that what remained of his credibility was at stake. Reluctantly, he ordered the Pentagon to ready military strikes on Syrian chemical warfare facilities. However, our generally ineffectual Secretary of State John Kerry made an off-hand comment at a news conference that the Syrians could avert American retaliation by giving up their stockpile of chemical weapons.

Anyone* who has ever worked or lived in Syria got a chuckle out of the thought that the regime of Bashar al-Asad would give up his chemical weapons. Syria maintains its chemical weapons arsenal and delivery systems to provide a deterrent against an attack by the vastly-superior (and nuclear-equipped) Israeli armed forces. Its ballistic missiles and squadron of SU-24 (NATO: FENCER) fighter-bombers can deliver chemical weapons virtually anywhere in Israel.

The thought that the Syrians would give up their chemical weapons arsenal was, and remains, ludicrous. However, the Syrians' primary sponsor - Russia - saw an opportunity to back Kerry and the United States into a corner. The Russians announced that they had brokered a deal in which the Syrians would give up their chemical weapons in return for an American commitment to call off impending military action against Syria. Obama jumped at the chance.

This "deal" put in motion a carefully orchestrated charade by the Russians and Syrians. Almost immediately after al-Asad's acceptance of the Russian-brokered agreement, there were numerous flights of Syrian Air Force IL-76 (NATO: CANDID) heavy transport aircraft between Syria and Iran. One has to wonder about the cargo of these sorties that occurred days after the Syrians agreed to surrender their chemical weapons.

The Syrians did surrender tons of chemical weapons and precursor chemicals, including artillery shells and aerial bombs, to the United Nations organization tasked with the implementation of the removal and destruction of the Syrian chemical arsenal.

However, at no time did the Syrians surrender any warheads designed for their arsenal of Russian, Iranian and North Korean ballistic missiles, missiles that can range virtually any spot in Israel. I think it safe to assume that these warheads are now located either at a location in Syria considered to be safe, or have been moved to safe haven in Iran, or a combination of both.

So now in the early summer of 2015, American intelligence issues a warning that the Syrian regime may be contemplating the use of chemical weapons. Is anyone asking where these chemical weapons came from? Was there not a huge victory lap in 2013 as Syria agreed to rid itself of chemical weapons?

Is any one going to be held accountable for being so gullible as to believe that the Syrians were going to surrender their entire chemical weapons arsenal? Or was it all a charade on both sides to give the Obama Administration an out from having to follow up on a "red line?"

* From 1992 to 1995, I served as the Air Attaché to the U.S. Embassy in Damascus. It was part of my brief to monitor the capabilities of the Syrian armed forces, including their chemical warfare capabilities.

June 28, 2015

Misquoted again - Iran, Iraq, chemical weapons and me

Click on image to read the article in a separate window

Every time a journalist wants to do an in-depth piece about either Iran or Iraq and its long-term relationship with the United States, he or she gets around to American intelligence support for the regime of Saddam Husayn in the last year of the Iran-Iraq War.

Usually in that research, my name comes up. More often than not, the researcher does his homework and gets the story right. Other times, however, they rely on one source. If that source happens to be an incorrect account - and there are plenty out there - it merely perpetuates untruths. The latter apparently happened again today.

I refer you to an article written by British journalist Mehdi Hasan which appeared in the Opinion section of the Aljazeera website (which of course is picked up and distributed by a host of other media). I recommend the article - click on the image above to go to the Aljazeera (English) website - with the caveat that you substitute his version of what happened in 1988 with my account. That section in his article is "1988: Chemical weapons."

In his piece, Mr. Hasan cites his source as an article published in 2013 by Foreign Policy magazine. I have rebutted that article on several occasions, in both print and broadcast media. I posted my rebuttal on this forum immediately after its publication - see
Foreign Policy Article - Corrections and Clarifications.

Let's address Mr. Hasan's account of Iraq's use of chemical weapons against the Iranians in 1988. Here is his text:

1988: Chemical weapons

In April 1988, Saddam Hussein's Iraqi army began an operation to retake the al-Faw peninsula from the Iranians, launching sarin attacks that killed thousands.

These Iraqi attacks on Iranian positions, using banned chemical weapons, were facilitated by the US. In 2013, Foreign Policy magazine revealed that: "US intelligence officials conveyed the location of the Iranian troops to Iraq, fully aware that Hussein's military would attack with chemical weapons, including sarin, a lethal nerve agent… The Iraqis used mustard gas and sarin prior to four major offensives in early 1988 that relied on US satellite imagery, maps, and other intelligence."

In fact, the Reagan administration had become aware five years earlier, in 1983, that the Saddam regime was using banned chemical weapons in its war against Iran, yet US officials continued to offer satellite imagery and other support to the Iraqi military. As retired US Air Force Colonel Rick Francona, a former military attaché in Baghdad during the 1988 operation, told Foreign Policy: "The Iraqis never told us that they intended to use nerve gas. They didn't have to. We already knew."

My comments:

-- First paragraph: Fine. That operation in April 1988 was code named Ramadan Mubarak (Blessed Ramadan), and re-took the al-Faw peninsula in 36 hours.

-- Second paragraph: The United States did not "facilitate" the use of chemical weapons. While we did provide intelligence from a variety of sources to the Iraqi military intelligence service, we were not "fully aware that Hussein's military would attack with chemical weapons, including sarin...". In fact, in April 1988, we were not aware that Iraq had developed effective nerve agents.

The use of the nerve agent sarin at al-Faw was not confirmed until I was able to gain access to the battlefields on the peninsula and gather physical evidence. Once we had evidence that the Iraqis had used sarin, our intelligence assistance came to an immediate halt pending a review of our options - a review held a much higher pay grade than mine.

The Reagan Administration was faced with two bad options: help Iraq despite its use of chemical weapons (specifically nerve agents), or end the program and allow the Iranians to win the war. The choice was to prevent an Iranian victory, so I returned to Baghdad and continued the program. The Iraqis used chemical weapons - mustard and sarin - in the three following offensives.

-- Third paragraph: The United States was aware that Iraq had attempted to develop the nerve agent Tabun, but had failed; they were using mustard in defensive operations. As for the quote attributed to me, I don't recall saying those exact words, but it is accurate as far as it goes - the Iraqis never told us they intended to use chemical weapons, but why would they? In fact, they denied having them even when presented with the evidence. After the al-Faw operation, they did not need to admit to it, we knew.

The bottom line

The United States was not aware of Iraqi nerve agent capability prior to the al-Faw operation in April 1988. In no way did the United States "facilitate" Iraq's development, acquisition or use of those weapons.

June 24, 2015

The Kurds - key to success against "The Islamic State?"

Kurdish fighters after seizing the border city of Tal Abyad, Syria

The so-called Islamic State, more commonly called the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), has suffered few military setbacks. The one that the Iraqi and American governments like to tout is the retaking of the city of Tikrit by Iraqi forces in April of this year.

Unfortunately, that "military success" was despite a series of mistakes and missteps on the part of the Iraqi forces and their Iranian-backed militia allies. It was only after tens of thousands of Iraqi forces had been fought to a standstill by less than a thousand ISIS fighters holed up in the city that American airpower had to be employed to save the day, after which the city fell to the Iraqis.

The battle to retake Tikrit did serve as a wake-up call for the Iraqis and their refocused American allies. It demonstrated just how ineffective the Iraqi Army has become, despite the infusion of American arms and training, and how ineffective the Iranian-backed militias are in the face of a determined enemy rather than ill-equipped, untrained Sunni Iraqi civilians.

Those two lessons were reinforced just weeks later as the Iraqis were unable to prevent ISIS forces from seizing the city of al-Ramadi, the capital of al-Anbar province--a mere 75 miles west of Baghdad. The Iraqi military and security forces continue to falter in the field.

There is one area that often goes overlooked--for several reasons, not the least of which is political. Many military analysts (me included) have assessed that among the Iraqi forces, the Iranian-backed militias are more effective. That is true as far as it goes, but if you consider the Kurdish peshmerga units as part of the mix, the assessment changes. The Kurds are easily the best fighters of them all.

It was the Kurds, backed by American airpower, that regained control of the Mosul Dam, a key infrastructure facility in northern Iraq that had fallen to ISIS when the Islamist group routed the Iraqi Army units in the city. Mosul remains in ISIS hands, but the dam and other parts of the countryside have been retaken by the Kurds.

The major problem the Kurds face is a lack of modern weaponry, especially heavy weapons--artillery, tanks, anti-armor missiles, etc. Because of our (short-sighted, in my opinion) commitment to the Shi'a-dominated, Iranian-influenced, poorly-led government of Prime Minister Haydar al-'Abadi, all weapons and military equipment provided to any Iraqi units, including (or more likely, especially) the Kurds, must go through the defense establishment in Baghdad. Unfortunately, the inept and almost certainly corrupt leadership in the Ministry of Defense provides very little of the materiel to the Kurds.

The Arab Iraqis--Shi'a and Sunni alike--have always been, and remain, wary of the Kurds and are skeptical of the Kurds' commitment to the current makeup and sovereignty of Iraq. Many believe that the Kurds are hoping to establish their own country, possibly in conjunction with their cousins in what is now Syria, or what the Kurds call Rojava or Western Kurdistan, and ultimately with the Kurds in Turkey.

That last part--"ultimately with the Kurds in Turkey"--is the source of much consternation between the Turks and the West over any Western support for the Kurds. The Turks view many of the Syria-based Kurdish militias as mere extensions of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, known better by its Kurdish abbreviation, the PKK. The PKK has been designated as a terrorist organization by the United States and many of its allies.

The Iraq Arabs may in fact be right about the Kurds and their ulterior motives, but that is an issue for another day. The current focus needs to be on the extermination of ISIS, or more politely put by President Barack Obama, to "degrade and ultimately destroy" ISIS. While the Iraqi Arabs do not seem to be capable of taking the fight to ISIS, the Kurds in both Iraq and Syria have demonstrated that they are not only capable, but willing, to do so.

By way of example, let's look at how effective the Kurds in northern Syria have been. We are all familiar with the tenacious defense the Kurds put up in the small border town of Kobani. The failure of ISIS to take and hold Kobani is not only a testament to the fighting capability of the Kurdish peshmerga, but validates the American tactic of using U.S.-led coalition airpower--in this case extensive use of U.S. Air Force B-1 bombers--in conjunction with indigenous ground forces. It also demonstrated that it is possible to have the Turks allow the Kurds in Iraq to provide weapons and materiel to their cousins in Syria via Turkish territory.

Northern Syria (click on image for larger view)

The map above illustrates what the Kurdish People's Protection Units, more commonly known by their Kurdish initials as the YPG, have been able to accomplish against ISIS--albeit with considerable American airpower and some ground support from elements of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

Even after the YPG success in forcing ISIS to withdraw from Kobani, ISIS still maintained two major lines of communications--its major logistics routes--from the Turkish border near the cities of Jarablus and Tal Abyad (west and east of Kobani, respectively) to its self-proclaimed capital city of al-Raqqah, about 65 miles south of the Turkish border.

After the victory at Kobani, YPG forces began moving toward Tal Abyad from both the east and west. After an intense battle--with heavy American air support--the Kurds were able to seize the border city from ISIS on June 15, 2015. Tal Abyad had been in ISIS hands for almost one year.

After the Kurds had established themselves in Tal Abyad, they began to press their advance both southwest and southeast. Their ultimate target is al-Raqqah, but there are intermediate targets as they move towards the ISIS capital.

With the fall of Tal Abyad, ISIS had lost one of its two major supply lines from the Turkish border to al-Raqqah, forcing it to rely on the border crossing to the west of Kobani. That route goes south along the Euphrates River to the city of Sarrin, and after that across the desert via the strategic crossroads at 'Ayn 'Isa or continuing along a longer route along the river.

The Kurds, who live in this area, are well aware of the lines of communications and the road network. ISIS requires logistics to keep its "state" and "military" running--they also need to move money and contraband oil. The Kurds began to move towards the two key cities of Sarrin and 'Ayn 'Isa, hoping to cut ISIS off from its direct lifeline to the Turkish border and forcing it to rely on alternate lines of communications further to the west, areas where they are facing pressure from other armed groups.

With increased U.S. airstrikes, the YPG was able to seize control of the city of 'Ayn 'Isa on June 23, along with a large Syrian Army base that has been used by ISIS, and the crossroads. This puts YPG fighters witihin 30 miles of al-Raqqah. Also, Kurdish forces backed by some FSA fighters have surrounded the city of Sarrin, which lies in a key position north of the militant group’s de-facto Raqqa capital.

What does all this mean?

It means that there is an opportunity for the Obama Administration to "reset" (they are big on "reset buttons") the strategy and tactics used to combat ISIS. The Kurds in both Iraq and Syria have demonstrated the ability to fight ISIS effectively. They have been able to repeatedly seize and hold territory, something the Iraqi government forces seem incapable of, or unwilling, to do.

The original Obama Administration plan to "degrade and ultimately destroy" ISIS was the use of airpower (overwhelmingly American) coupled with someone else's "boots on the ground." In Iraq, that was to be the retrained and re-equipped Iraqi Army.

In Syria, it was to be an initial cadre of 5,000 FSA fighters who would be trained and equipped by the United States. That hasn't worked out well (I am being polite - it has been an abject failure).

What has worked, however, is the use of the Kurdish peshmerga in Iraq and the Kurdish YPG in Syria. Both have been effective on the ground against ISIS, and both have worked effectively with American air support.

In Iraq, we should quit our current focus of attempting to train/retrain Iraqi soldiers who just don't seem interested in fighting to save the Sunni Arab portions of Iraq. We also should withdraw any support or equipment that might benefit or fall into the hands of the Iranian-backed--and Iraqi government-supported--Shi'a militias.

All the support efforts--including training, equipment, air support, logistics support, etc.--should be directed to the Kurds, without any interference from Baghdad. I would assess the Iraqi government in Baghdad as being part of the problem, not part of the solution. This is really no longer about Iraq and its half-hearted--and I am being generous--efforts to create an inclusive government or to field an effective army capable of retaking Iraqi territory.

It should now be about directly addressing the threat to the United States posed by ISIS--the President has stated that ISIS is a threat to the United States. If so, let's use whatever means necessary to defeat them--if that is working solely with the Kurds, so be it. If ISIS is not a threat to the United States, it's time to say goodbye (and good riddance) to the failed Iraqi Shi'a government.

For Syria, the Administration should "reset" as well, this time shifting its training and equipping resources to the Kurds. They are willing to fight ISIS, while the FSA is more focused on the removal of Bashar al-Asad--we can worry about Bashar after ISIS is gone.

Some detractors--including the Turks--will claim that this change will embolden the Kurds and fan the flames of Kurdish nationalism, and only stoke their desire for their own homeland. And the downside with that is...?*

Time to back the winners for a change.
* Disclaimer: I served in northern Iraq as part of a U.S. government effort to support the Kurds. I have always supported their efforts to establish a national homeland.

June 14, 2015

More American military advisers to Iraq - not the answer

A few days ago, President Barack Obama ordered an additional 450 U.S. military advisers to Iraq to augment the 3,100 American troops already there. According to news reports, these additional troops will deploy to al-Anbar province in western Iraq, a Sunni-dominated area under pressure from fighters of the so-called Islamic State, or the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The capital city of al-Anbar province, al-Ramadi, recently fell to ISIS, despite Iraqi security forces efforts - army units, militias and police forces - to prevent ISIS from seizing the city. The fall of al-Ramadi was a serious blow to the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Haydar al-'Abadi - the city is a mere 65 miles west of Baghdad.

To make matters worse, ISIS is now moving down the Euphrates River valley towards the second city of al-Anbar province, al-Fallujah. Al-Fallujah, a name well known to American troops because of the intense fighting in the city in past years, is only 30 miles west of Baghdad. While a direct ISIS assault on Baghdad itself is not likely, we can expect to see an increase in the number of suicide attacks and bombings in the Shi'a sections of the capital.

The President's decision to send more troops is an admission that either his current strategy - or the execution of that strategy - is failing. In 2014, the initial small cadre was deployed to Baghdad to assess and re-train the Iraqi army following the humiliating collapse of several Iraqi Army divisions as ISIS seized Mosul (al-Mawsil), Iraq's second largest city. That was one year ago - since then, ISIS has expanded its territory in both Iraq and Syria despite the U.S.-led coalition air campaign and Iraqi military operations.

The Obama strategy - which has been in place for a year despite the President's claim last week at the G-7 meeting in Germany that he was still waiting for a strategy from the Pentagon - was to use U.S.-led coalition airpower in conjunction with Iraqi boots on the ground. That sounds good on paper, but I think reality has set in at the Department of Defense. Iraqi forces are in such poor condition - thanks to the premature withdrawal of American trainers/advisers in 2011 - that they are incapable of functioning as coherent military units.

The Obama Administration has lost much of its credibility through its constant claims that ISIS is on the defensive, that it cannot mount offensive operations, that thousands of its fighters are being killed, that Iraqi forces are on the rebound. Those statements fly in the face of reality.

Looking at recent Iraqi military operations, the only one that could possibly be construed as a success is the retaking of Tikrit. In reality, however, that was basically an Iranian-backed Shi'a militia operation using heavy artillery to turn large parts of the city into piles of rubble. Even after that, it required the withdrawal of the militias and application of American airpower to finally finish of the much smaller group of ISIS fighters tenaciously holding on in the city.

Almost immediately after the President announced his strategy in 2014, Iraqi leaders postulated that it would only be a few months before they would retake the city of Mosul from ISIS. The initial claims of the Administration strategy was to provide the Iraqi political leadership and the military forces the "time and space" needed to regroup and launch a campaign to retake Mosul "in a few months." That bluster fell by the wayside when the first American trainers provided their assessment of the current state of the Iraqi military. Given what we have seen in the last year, the idea of Iraqi forces retaking Mosul anytime soon is ludicrous.

While the Tikrit operation was bandied as a success for the Iraqi military and American strategy, ISIS was able to move enough forces - despite uncontested American air operations over the entire country - south to encircle and seize al-Ramadi. How was that possible? Either the strategy of American-led airpower combined with Iraqi "boots on the ground" is flawed, or it is not being executed properly.

I suspect it is some of both.

The basics of a successful strategy are there, but needs substantial modification. There are things the American military does better than anyone else in the world. One of those is the application of airpower, and the other is the use of combined arms - air and land forces employed together in what has become known as the AirLand Battle. If the Obama Administration would apply elements of what we do best, the situation in Iraq can be turned around.

It will not be because we are deploying 450 additional advisers to expand and continue executing the same failed strategy.

How do we fix this? Assuming that we are not going to deploy American combat troops to fight ISIS, we can work with a modified version of the Obama strategy. First, the air campaign has to be a real air campaign, not the anemic effort that is currently being waged. There is no reason that ISIS should be able to move on the roads in Iraq (or Syria). Given the complete dominance of the air and the capability of the array of intelligence and surveillance sensors available to the air battle planners, the U.S.-led coalition should be able to stop ISIS in its tracks. Of course, that requires that the White House stop micro-managing battlefield operations half a world away.

U.S. pilots constantly complain about the cumbersome chain of command and long delays in approvals to conduct offensive operations - approvals they should already have before they take off. When they can clearly see ISIS engaged in logistic support or actual combat operations, let our pilots do their jobs. See my earlier piece on this: Why is American airpower not stopping ISIS? (March 2015).

Combined with streamlining the target validation process, the pilots need better "eyes on target" - that means American eyeballs on the ground with Iraqi troops designating targets. The U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force have been doing this effectively for decades - teams with ground units who can not only designate targets, but provide tactical control, immediate fire correction and instant damage assessment. To utilize airpower to its fullest - especially when you have troops in contact - you need these tactical air control parties (TACP) on the ground. We have people who do this as a profession - get them into the fight.

In conjunction with putting these TACPs into the fight, embed U.S. Army or U.S. Marine Corps officers in Iraqi military units to provide advice and assistance and work with the TACP personnel to maximize U.S./coalition capabilities in support of Iraqi military operations. If the American troops are truly advisers, they need to be out in the field with the units they have trained. You cannot "advise" from a secure base tens of miles away.

The President and the Secretary of Defense have a serious decision to make, and they need to make it soon. If they are serious about achieving the President's stated goal to "degrade and ultimately defeat" ISIS, they need to refine the rules of engagement and get into the fight. As it stands now, we are merely reacting to ISIS's moves - that's not how you win wars.

Yes, Mr. Obama, this is a war. American forces are in harm's way all day, everyday - let them do their jobs. You keep reminding us that you are the Commander in Chief - now is the time to start acting like it.

June 11, 2015

Tariq 'Aziz - response to an irate reader

I don't normally respond to irate readers or personal attacks based on my commentaries - I get enough hate mail and death threats via the viewers of CNN. I thought I would take the time, however, to respond to this young Assyrian woman. I am sure she is sincere and means well, but her comments are so misguided that I wanted to inject some reality into her "don't bother me with the truth" notions of her former country.

These comments were left in response to my article on the death of Tariq 'Aziz, a convicted war criminal who was sentenced to death by an Iraqi court. See Tariq 'Aziz - dead at 79 (June 7, 2015). By way of background, the reader (whose name I am withholding) is a Chaldean (Assyrian) Christian woman born in Baghdad, but now living in the United States. At times she uses the term "we" to mean Americans, so I assume she plans on staying in the United States.

Here are the comments (and my one retort):

(Reader) [Tariq Aziz] helped protect Iraqi Christians and let's be honest Iraq was a functioning country under the Baathists. It has turned into a complete s***hole. Tariq Aziz loved his country and was a loyalist. The Baathists would not have allowed Jihadists to destroy Iraqi historical artifacts and destroy the country. People could travel to work and school and live their lives under the Baathists. We replaced a secular government in Iraq with a theocracy which now belongs to Iran.

(Reader) Iraq is a completely destroyed country. And the sectarian is everywhere in Iraq, one group isn't better or worse than the other. Kurds have been stealing Christian villages in Northern Iraq terrorizing minorities in Iraq for 100 years. Maliki was also a dictator but was bad at his job the Shias have been doing the same thing to the Sunnis that the Baathists did to Shias. So what's the difference? Difference is the Baathists kept the country secular, secure from foreign terrorists, and functioning.

(Reader) The best advice for US intelligence other intelligence agencies when it comes to stabilizing Iraq warding off Iran is help another SECULAR group take Iraq back.

(Reader) I'm Chaldean and I'm proud of Tariq Aziz. Rest in peace!

Rick Francona: Have some more kool aid....

(Reader) Spoken by a person who helped destroy Iraq. Thank you for destroying Iraq and for destroying my ancient Mesopotamian Christian community's 7,000+ year presence on our ancestral homeland.
(End remarks)

First of all, I did not destroy Iraq. The destruction of Iraq was preordained by ruthless psychopaths like Saddam Husayn and yes, your beloved Tariq 'Aziz. In fact, had you bothered to do any research about me at all, you would have discovered that I was one of the Americans in 1987 and 1988 that likely saved Iraq from certain defeat at the hands of the Iranians. Had the United States not provided American intelligence information to the Iraqi military, the Iranians would have marched into Baghdad by mid-1988.

There is no such thing as an "ancient Mesopotamian Christian community's 7,000+ year presence on our ancestral homeland." Assyrians, yes - Chaldeans, no.

Let's look at the man you are so proud of. Tariq 'Aziz was Saddam's key foreign policy and national security adviser. Tariq 'Aziz did not love his country - he loved the power and prestige that being a member of Saddam's inner circle provided him. If he loved Iraq, he would not have helped Saddam Husayn take it down the path of destruction.

On his watch, 'Aziz advised Saddam Husayn to invade Iran in September of 1980, an event that caused an eight-year bloodbath for both countries. It was the Shi'a Iraqis and the Kurds who paid the price for Saddam's - and Tariq 'Aziz's - blunder.

If that wasn't enough, the decision to invade Kuwait in August 1990 was agreed to, and later defended, by Tariq 'Aziz. That led to the needless death of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Kuwaitis, displacement of others, brutal repression of the Shi'a and Kurdish populations and the continued isolation of Iraq from the rest of the world.

Let's not forget the use of chemical weapons on thousands of Kurds at Halabjah, use of nerve gas on Iranian troops at al-Faw, Shalamjah, Majnun, etc., the environmental disaster of the oil release into the Gulf, lighting 600 Kuwaiti oil wells on fire, continuous refusal to cooperate with the United Nations - the list goes on and on. At the center of it all was one key adviser - Tariq 'Aziz.

Your romantic notions of the Ba'this are misplaced. I assume you are too young to remember, or simply chose to ignore, the brutality that was the Saddam Husayn dictatorship - all supported by Tariq 'Aziz. I suggest you do some more research before you blindly canonize the Christian-in-name-only Tariq 'Aziz.

June 7, 2015

Tariq 'Aziz - dead at 79

Tariq 'Aziz in his Ba'th Party uniform

Tariq 'Aziz - dead at 79.

To many Westerners, Tariq 'Aziz was the face of the brutal regime of Iraqi dictator Saddam Husayn. His polished demeanor, ability to effectively communicate in English, and the fact that he was a Christian convinced many of his contacts around the world that he might have the ability to provide wise advice and counsel to the Iraqi strongman, and hopefully ameliorate some of Saddam's self-destructive behavior. Foreign politicians believed he could be the voice of reason in an unreasonable regime.

They were wrong. Tariq 'Aziz was a true believer, committed to the cause of Arab Socialist nationalism, a Ba'th Party devotee. He was about as close to Saddam Husayn as anyone outside Saddam's immediate family, and was Saddam's key foreign policy and national security advisor. It was Tariq 'Aziz who deftly attempted to explain some of Saddam Husayn's most egregious actions, including the attack on Iran in 1980 that launched an eight-year long bloodbath, and the 1990 invasion of Kuwait that galvanized the world into action that culminated in the first Gulf War.

Tariq 'Aziz was born Mikhail Yuhanna in 1936 into a Chaldean Christian family in northern Iraq. In the 1950's, after studying English at Baghdad University, he worked as a journalist and became an Arab nationalist. He was an early member of the Iraqi wing of the Ba'th Party, and an early compatriot of Saddam Husayn. After the Ba'th Party came to power in 1968, he rose through the ranks of the party, gaining even more power and influence when Saddam came to power in 1979. At that point, he became the deputy prime minister as well as holding key party positions.

Although every Middle East specialist was keenly aware of Tariq 'Aziz and his role in the Iraqi regime, it was not until 1988 that I first met the deputy prime minister. In late 1987, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) prepared an assessment that postulated that if the Iranians launched an expected annual spring offensive, this time starting from Iraqi territory captured in 1986 south of the key city of al-Basrah, there was a high probability that the Iraqi defenses would collapse and the Iranians would gain the advantage, likely winning the then seven-year long bloody conflict that had devastated both countries.

An Iranian victory was inimical to American national interests in the region. The Department of Defense was instructed by President Ronald Reagan to take whatever actions were necessary to ensure that the Iranians were not victorious in the conflict. An Iraqi victory or defeat was not at issue - the only consideration was to ensure that Iran did not win the war and emerge as the key power broker in the Persian Gulf region.

To that end, DIA was directed to offer to provide intelligence information to the Iraqi armed forces, via the Directorate of Military Intelligence. Such an operation would require the concurrence of Iraqi President Saddam Husayn. Advising Saddam to accept or reject the American offer would have been the ultimate purview of Tariq 'Aziz. 'Aziz was astute enough to realize that if the United States was willing to provide sensitive intelligence to the internationally-despised Iraqi regime, the situation was certainly precarious for Iraq and that Saddam should accept the offer.

It was in this context that I met Tariq 'Aziz. It was a chance meeting, to be sure - he was not disposed to meet with U.S. Air Force captains charged with conducting the program at the operational level. He recognized me in the group of senior Iraqi military intelligence officers as obviously not an Iraqi, and since he had no doubt advised Saddam on the effort, knew why I was in Baghdad. We spoke for a few minutes, with him humoring me by carrying on the conversation in Arabic. I then began to understand why many Western diplomats and politicians were charmed by his easy and warm demeanor.

Flash forward to 2003. Following the fall of Baghdad after the American-led invasion, Tariq 'Aziz - who was the "eight of spades" in the deck of wanted Iraqi officials - surrendered to U.S. forces April 2003. When he surrendered, U.S. Army military police and intelligence specialists searched his home. Part of that search was cataloging all of the books and documents in 'Aziz's office and library.

I was surprised when I received a call from a friend working in the Pentagon's public affairs office - at the time I was working as a military analyst for NBC News (appearing on NBC Nightly News, Today Show, CNBC and MSNBC). The officer told me that in the search of Tariq 'Aziz's home, they made an interesting find - a book entitled Ally to Adversary: An Eyewitness Account of Iraq's Fall from Grace by Rick Francona.

I asked her if it was an autographed or personalized copy - it was a joke. I think I would have remembered signing a copy for Tariq 'Aziz.

May 23, 2015

Memorial Day 2015

Note: I wrote this in 2007 while a military analyst at NBC News. The situation has changed a bit, but I think the sentiment still is true today. Let us not forget that there are still American forces in harm's way.

'On behalf of a grateful nation'
Do not forget our fallen men and women

By Lt. Col. Rick Francona, U.S. Air Force (Retired)
Military analyst - MSNBC

Lt. Gen. Ed Soriano, left, presents Jessica Hebert, sister of Spc. Justin Hebert who was killed in Kirkuk, Iraq, with an American flag during his military funeral (AP Photo/The Herald, Meggan Booker). Ed and I served together in Desert Storm - this must have been his toughest duty.

Memorial Day weekend – most people associate that with the start of the "summer driving season" or a chance to buy appliances on sale. The constant news coverage of still high gasoline prices tends to overshadow the real meaning of the holiday. It is not about driving or shopping – it is about remembering the men and women or our armed forces who died while in service to the country. It is important that we not forget that – after more than a decade, we are still at war and we still lose some our finest young men and women every week.

Yes, we are still at war. No one knows this more than the families of those who have fallen on battlefields far from home with names most of us cannot pronounce. Unlike most of the wars America has fought in the past, we are fighting with an all volunteer force – there has been no draft since 1973. Every one of the fallen volunteered to serve this country, and deserve a moment of remembrance. Less than one-half of one percent of Americans serve in uniform (in World War II, it was over 12 percent) at any one time.

In the draft era, a much higher percent of the population entered the service, creating a large pool of veterans. Veterans understand the unique demands of military service, the separation from loved ones, the dangers of combat. With far fewer veterans or a veteran in the family, community and government, it is easy to lose sight of the demands military service requires of our men and women in uniform – and to forget too quickly those who have made the ultimate sacrifice.

Sometimes one could get the feeling that foreign countries – especially those that have been liberated by American forces in the past – pay more tribute to our fallen troops than we do. I will never forget standing in a church in rural France – not a fancy cathedral, not a tourist spot, nothing architecturally significant, just a small village church. I would not have paid much attention until I spotted a well-maintained corner with a small American flag and a plaque.

I walked over and read the simple but powerful words in French and English, "In gratitude to the United States of America and in remembrance of her 56,681 sons that now and forever sleep in French soil." A elderly parishioner sitting in a pew nearby saw me reading the inscription and asked if I was an American. I said that I was – she slowly rose, nodded at the memorial and said, "You are welcome in France."

Over the years, over a million American troops have died in military service. Each fallen warrior is afforded a military funeral. Military funerals symbolize respect for the fallen and their families. Anyone who has attended a military funeral will never forget it – the American flag draped on the coffin, an honor guard in full dress uniform, the crack of seven rifles firing three volleys as Taps is played on the bugle, the snap of the flag as it is folded into the familiar triangle of blue, the reverence of fellow warriors.

Before his final salute, the officer in charge presents that folded flag to, in most cases, a young widow. He makes that presentation "on behalf of a grateful nation."

At some point on this day, let us make sure that we do not forget our fallen men and women, and that we are in fact a grateful nation.

© 2007 MSNBC Interactive and Rick Francona