Saturday, November 24, 2007

Taking annual inventory of the war in Iraq

Another year has passed since I last took a tally of the war in Iraq. Back then, the talk was about launching a 'surge.' Since then, Bush launched the surge and is now talking about withdrawing it.

The surge met with moderate success, squelching the sectarian violence in spots in Iraq. Unfortunately, it has not been successful at achieving the one key objective of the surge: creating an environment where political reconciliation can occur in Iraq. Moreover, according to the latest Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction Quarterly Report to the United States Congress (12 MB PDF download):
notwithstanding this important progress on the security front facilitated by the surge, the overall security situation in Iraq still hampers recovery and reconstruction efforts. Attacks on infrastructure continue to adversely affect the availability of essential services.
Subsequently, the withdrawal of the surge does not mean success, it means switching to Plan B ... except that the Bush administration does not have a Plan B.

2007 is shaping up to be the deadliest year for American troops in Iraq. We know that 3,874 of them have been killed in Iraq since the war started. However, that count does not include the numerous severely wounded troops who were evacuated from Iraq and subsequently died of the wounds they sustained in Iraq while under medical care in places outside of Iraq like the Ramstein Air Base in Germany.

It's not so clear how accurate the number of casualties reported by the military is. While it reports over 30,000 troops injured in Iraq, there are at least 20,000 American troops who sustained brain injuries in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan who are not counted among the wounded. It took Freedom of Information Act filings to force the military to release the information which uncovered this 'oversight.' Does it make a difference that there are actually over 50,000 American casualties of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan rather than 'just' 30,000? While it doesn't to their commander in chief, who stubbornly sticks to his same losing strategy in Iraq, it does to the families and friends of those 20,000 unrecognized wounded veterans.

Meanwhile, the "coalition of the willing" is falling apart. Although their presence in Iraq was never substantial in the first place, nineteen countries have withdrawn from the Coalition. Even America's staunchest ally in the Coalition, England, reported in February that it would be withdrawing 2,100 of its 7,200 troops from Iraq. This will have little impact on America's commitment to the war since US troops have comprised around ninety percent of the Coalition all along.

Probably the most significant impact on the war in Iraq in the past year is what has not happened. President Bush has established no new policies to guide our action in Iraq. He has undertaken no new strategy for fighting the war (the surge was not a new strategy, it was just throwing more troops at the old one). And he hasn't come up with a new justification for the war this year -- Bush still claims it's the "front in the war on terror." This lack of addressing the failures of the war in Iraq means that America will continue to languish in the quagmire for at least another year.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Tightening the belt of the Defense Department

Congress finally did something right this week. They failed to appropriate more funding to the war in Iraq without a commitment by the commander in chief to withdraw the troops from there soon. After approving half a trillion dollars of "emergency appropriations" with no strings attached since the invasion, thereby perpetuating the war in Iraq, congress is finally responding to its constituents and leveraging more pressure to redeploy the troops.

Secretary of defense Robert Gates responded to the failure to fund the Iraq war with a threat to furlough as many as 200,000 civil servants and defense contractors this winter. This could potentially force the Defense Department to close dozens of domestic military bases. Gates couched his threat with a claim that the furloughs would be "the least undesirable" alternative to the lack of funding.

But Gates failed to acknowledge one very desirable way to respond to a lack of funding: an immediate and orderly withdrawal of troops from Iraq. That would save the Pentagon nearly $2-billion per week. Certainly that must be far more money than it costs to pay the 200,000 civil servants and defense contractors Gates threatened to furlough.

More importantly, this is how the American people want the Pentagon to tighten its belt. In fact, with the redeployment of the troops from Iraq, president Bush would not even need the $189-billion supplemental appropriation he's asking for in the first place. Congress did approve the Pentagon's $470-billion base budget, so no one can claim that it does not support the troops.