OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: US to investigate Syrian chemical weapons attack

On Capitol Hill, there have been new calls for action from defense hawks like Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), as well as Democrats like Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.).

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Other lawmakers, however, are urging caution, a divide that played out at a House Foreign Affairs hearing Wednesday.

“Too many questions remain about who the rebels are and with whom they will swear allegiance,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.). “The unknown can be dangerous, and the vetting of the opposition is not enough when it comes to providing lethal aid that could be used against our allies, such as Israel, or the United States in a post-Assad era.”

The issue has quickly risen to the top of Obama’s agenda during his first trip to Israel as president. Israeli leaders are concerned about chemical weapons falling into the hands of terrorists who might try to strike on Israeli soil.

Israeli officials on Wednesday took a different view than the Obama administration on the chemical weapons, saying it was “clear” they had been used.

Senate passes government spending bill: The Senate passed its government funding measure on Wednesday in a 73-26 vote after reaching a deal to vote on some amendments.

The bill is key for the military because it includes a full-year Defense appropriations bill in the continuing resolution that allows the Pentagon to shift around its funding in 2013. The measure includes a shift of $10 billion into operations and maintenance accounts that were facing shortfalls before the across-the-board cuts under sequestration took effect.

The legislation also included an amendment that reversed the military’s decision to suspend tuition assistance in 2013, which the Army, Marines and Air Force had all done to deal with budget cuts.

The amendment on tuition aid, from Sens. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), passed on a voice vote.

Two other defense-related amendments were not included in the bill. Sen. Pat Toomey’s (R-Pa.) attempt to cut funding to the military’s biofuels programs failed in a 40-59 vote. Sen. Kelly Ayotte’s (R-N.H.) amendment to kill $380 million in funding for the Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS) was not given a vote.

Final Afghan fighting season begins: U.S. and NATO forces are ramping up for fighting season in Afghanistan, which will likely be the final one for American troops as they prepare to pull out from the country next year.

This year's spring campaign will focus on flushing out Taliban and Haqqani Network fighters from the band of Afghan provinces that line the country's border with Pakistan, International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) Deputy Commander British Lt. Gen. Nick Carter said Wednesday.

Those areas, particularly in the Logar, Paktika, Paktia and Khost provinces, "are the areas which are the Pashtun heart of the insurgency and those are the ones that we would expect to be most violent," Carter said.

The provinces in eastern Afghanistan are slated to be the last areas officially handed over to the Afghan National Security Forces by this spring, as part of the transition plan agreed to during NATO's annual conference in Chicago last May.

The battle plan for this year's spring campaign, according to Carter, will represent "a refocusing to the ISAF mission" where American and allied security force assistance units will support Afghan forces, rather than take the lead in combat operations. This spring's fighting season "is going to see the [Afghan National Security Forces] being the supported piece of this, and it's going to see us supporting them," Carter said.

U.S. and NATO forces have been fairly successful in closing off Taliban and Haqqani supply lines running from Pakistan across the Afghan border, Col. Tim Sullivan, deputy commanding officer of Task Force Rakkasan, told The Hill in an interview in Khost province last year.

But successfully securing and handing over restive provinces like Khost and Paktika to Afghan control will be a tough fight, according to Carter.

"It's my sense that the insurgency will find it difficult to create traction in that area ... but it's [also] my sense it's the eastern areas, and it's the areas that push up into Kabul which will be the principal threat during the course of this summer," the ISAF commander said.

Vets weigh in on drone medal debate: U.S. veterans will get some face time with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel as part of the Defense Department chief's review of a controversial new battlefield commendation.

Hagel will host a "roundtable discussion" with the heads of various veterans organizations at the Pentagon on Thursday, according to a DOD statement.

The discussion will revolve around "issues related to the FY14 budget, transition assistance, Veterans employment, mental health of the force, and ... views on the Distinguished Warfare Medal," according to the Pentagon.

The meeting comes weeks after Hagel announced a 30-day review to reassess the new combat medal for drone pilots and cyber warriors and its placement in the hierarchy of DOD's combat citations.

As part of the review, Hagel directed Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey to examine the drone medal among other commendations such as the Bronze Star or Purple Heart and whether its position above those two citations is warranted.

While those members of the military usually serve far from harm's way, their impact on the battlefield is a harbinger of the new age in modern warfare, the department has argued. 

But that rationale dismisses the sacrifices made by frontline troops, according to U.S. combat veterans and a handful of congressional lawmakers.

"We are very concerned about the message that this decision sends to those brave veterans of our nation’s wars since 1941 whose heroism and meritorious service has been recognized by the Bronze Star Medal,” Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and ranking member James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said in a letter to Hagel earlier this month.

"Medals that can only be earned in direct combat must mean more than medals awarded in the rear," John Hamilton, national commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said in a statement last February.

Hagel, a former Army sergeant who served in the 9th Infantry Division in Vietnam, has yet to publicly weigh in on the medal's ranking. Dempsey's report and subsequent recommendations on the new medal are due to Hagel by April.


In Case You Missed It:

— US, NATO target eastern Afghanistan

— Senate rejects measure to gut biofuels

— Senate stops cuts to military tuition assistance

— US, Afghan detainee deal finalized

— US indicts al Qaeda operative


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