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Weekly News Roundup: A New Date and Weapons in Afghanistan, Medal of Honor for Giunta Back Home

written by Matt Elliott
on November 19, 2010

President Obama arrived in Lisbon, Portugal today for the NATO summit, where strategy for the nine-year war in Afghanistan and the new withdrawal target of 2014 will be discussed. "On Afghanistan, there is general agreement that NATO will begin next year to gradually hand over responsibility for security to the Afghan government and its troops and police, a process that is supposed to be finished by the end of 2014. European nations that have troops in Afghanistan are eager to transition themselves to non-combat roles, so there will be much discussion down the line about which provinces are handed over first."

With the new 2014 withdrawal date only recently established, there is already doubt about how much can be accomplished between now and then and the condition Afghanistan will find itself in come 2014. Earlier this week, a top NATO official, Mark Sedwill, said that the country will likely see "eye-watering" levels of violence after NATO forces withdraw in 2014 and warned that the fighting won't immediately end. "If we go down from roughly 10,000 troops to, say, around 1,000, that's very manageable but ... it will remain 'operations' — it will not be some kind of peacetime training, it will continue to be a military operation in support of the Afghan army and police."

For the first time in the nine-year war, U.S. tanks are making their way to Afghanistan to add increased firepower in the fight against the Taliban. Marines in Helmand Province will receive 14 M1 Abrams tanks next month along with 115 additional Marines. Tanks are a touchy subject in Afghanistan. "Military officials are keenly aware of the negative perception many Afghans still have about the use of tanks after the Soviet occupation... Marine officials say the tanks' precise firepower will enable Marine forces to protect population centers and take the fight to the Taliban from afar."

Another new weapon has also recently made its way to the battlefield, a semi-automatic weapon that can hit enemy targets hiding behind walls. The XM-25 is expected to save American lives; soldiers will not need to leave their cover in order to find a direct shot. Instead, "Crouching behind his own cover, a U.S. soldier armed with the XM-25 can point his weapon at the wall behind which the enemy is hiding to get the precise distance. The rounds, which come four to a magazine plus one in the chamber, can then be programmed to travel just a short distance behind that to explode precisely where the insurgent is believed to be hiding. With the scope aimed at the top of the wall, the round will fire and explode before impact, at the precise location programmed by the soldier, raining a hail of explosives and fragments on to the enemy."

On Tuesday, Staff Sgt Salvatore Giunta was presented the Medal of Honor by President Obama. He became the first living soldier to earn the military's highest honor for valor since Vietnam.

For Army Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta, the tribute to his heroism was bittersweet, because it was a bloody day in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley and the soldier he brought back later died.

"I would give this back in a second to have my friends with me right now," he said on the rain-soaked White House driveway after President Barack Obama hung the blue ribbon that cradled the medal around Giunta's neck.

For more on Giunta, read Tim Hetherington's brief profile of him for Vanity Fair here. You can also watch Hetherington on PBS Newshour earlier this week, where he spoke about his time documenting the war in Afghanistan.

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