On August 31, 2010 the last American combat troops will leave Iraq. Many thousands will remain in advisory and security roles well into 2011. Over 4,700 American soldiers, sailors, and Marines have died in the conflict, with between 97,000 and 106,000 Iraqi civilians dead as well. The strictly human toll is the most important, which is why I list it first. The toll paid by our nation in money and material, while less important, is equally startling.
It includes the $900 billion of US taxpayers’ funds spent or approved for spending through Sept 2010. Some $9 billion of US taxpayers’ money and $549.7 million in spare parts shipped in 2004 to US contractors are listed as lost and unaccounted for in Iraq. An amount totaling $1 billion in tractor trailers, tank recovery vehicles, machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and other equipment and services provided to the Iraqi security forces are missing. $10 billion, per Feb 2007 Congressional hearings, was wasted or mismanaged. There are $1.4 billion in Halliburton overcharges classified by the Pentagon as unreasonable and unsupported. $20 billion was paid to KBR, a former Halliburton division, to supply U.S. military in Iraq with food, fuel, housing and other items. $3.2 billion of that $20 billion paid to KBR, are for charges Pentagon auditors deem “questionable or supportable”.
Even as we leave the Iraq War, and its legacy of lies, money, and greed behind, we remain entangled in another conflict. Currently, some 94,000 U.S. soldiers are deployed to Afghanistan, with the number scheduled to stay at that level until August of 2011. The troops are engaged in a wide-ranging series of efforts that recall the scope and complexity of the Viet Nam era. Afghanistan is a fragmented land, where the only common ground is often a dislike of foreign intrusion. The full scope of the conflict and the country are difficult for many Americans to understand. The pontificating personalities of TV and politics who talk breathlessly about “victory”, “honor”, “enemies”, and “strategy” often lack a basic understanding as well. This is not the war you saw in the movies; it isn’t a game of chess or monopoly either. The terms of victory are not spelled out in the rules, and there is no enemy flag to capture.
One lesson that could be taken from the otherwise needless travesty known as the Iraq War, was the affirmation that our military must be deployed only when the mission is clearly defined and within the boundaries of what they do well. The shock and awe of 2003 was a political exercise carried out by the U.S. military on the orders of President Bush. The aftermath of the initial conflict was an embarrassing and clumsy exercise in war profiteering. Only when criticism of President Bush’s ‘I listen to the generals until I fire them’ routine grew loud enough did solid leadership take hold in that country. General David Petraeus’ strategy included the human calculations that the cynical Cheneys of the world don’t care to understand. Secretary Robert Gates took over the Defense Department, and began to run it as an organization focused on results, rather than Rumsfeld’s personal cult of personality.
Knowing little of Petraeus, I thought he was the next up in a line of commanders that would be sent off with political goals, and ignored on military realities. I thought The Surge was another homo-erotic playhouse game cooked up by Cheney’s minions. I was wrong on both points. He and Secretary Gates formed a partnership that helped get the job done in Iraq. It is my great hope that the same scenario is in our nation’s future with regard to Afghanistan. The problem, of course, is the politics. Regardless of party affiliation, the Commander in Chief is typically assailed by enemies (and more viciously by friends) on every point of order in a conflict. Much like a sporting event in the United States, in time of war, the spectators always know the can suggest it better than the person making the decisions in real time.
President Obama has taken on the responsibility of escalating Afghanistan; for better or worse it his responsibility to see this through. We the people will constantly demand that he do a better job than his predecessors at caring for the money and material that ships out to Afghanistan. It is, however, his awesome responsibility alone to take better care of that other, much more important commodity our nation has in that far away place: the 94,000 whose loved ones want to see home safe.
The Rational Middle is listening…