Last night, one of the major television networks led its news broadcast with the “news” of Donald Trump’s pseudo-candidacy for president. It should come as no surprise that this was the same network (NBC) which also broadcasts Trump’s reality show.
Since the mainstream media has, quite obviously, abdicated all responsibility for reporting the news in any sort of journalistic fashion, I thought today would be a good day to review the current status of America’s wars. Depending on how you count, there are now three (or four) of these wars which have been all but forgotten by the media these days.
Because there are so many wars to cover, this is going to have to be a two-part article. I will post “Part 2” of this article early tomorrow on my own site. I’m going to review these wars in the order of the chronological date of our initial involvement, just to be clear.
Afghanistan / Pakistan
Afghanistan is the war which America has (currently) devoted the most troops to fighting, as well as being our oldest war effort to date (of the wars we’re still fighting). President Barack Obama has tripled our troop commitment to the country since he took office, in two “surges” of 30,000-35,000 soldiers each. We now have approximately 100,000 soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan.
The generals on the ground report progress in Afghanistan, especially in the south of the country in what used to be a Taliban stronghold. The provinces of Kandahar and Helmand have been a military success story, according to the generals. However, they describe these gains as “fragile and reversible.” For the first time, as the yearly “fighting season” begins in Afghanistan, the Taliban will be operating from a reduced area of control.
Perhaps because of this, attacks on “soft targets” seem to be on the upswing. Suicide bombers and gunmen have successfully infiltrated the Afghan security services and have assassinated some high-level targets in recent days. Some believe this will increase over the summer, providing the Taliban with spectacular media coverage, if not gains in actual Afghan territory.
Thousands of miles away, a political storm is brewing over the continued presence of American soldiers in Afghanistan, however. President Obama is going to have a decision to make, around July of this year. This is the deadline he set for his surge to begin drawing down. Reportedly, there is a difference of opinion between the White House and the Pentagon over what, exactly, this is going to mean. The Pentagon wants as many soldiers as it can get, for as long a period as possible. The Obama White House (especially, from many reports, Joe Biden) wants “more than just a token withdrawal” to begin this summer. Whatever Obama announces come July, it’s obviously not going to make all sides happy.
The American public is weary of this war, for the most part. Our presence in Afghanistan is now the longest war America has ever waged — longer than our revolution, longer than either World War, longer than Vietnam. The public doesn’t see much sense in continuing this war, at least if the polls can be believed.
But no American president wants to “lose” a war, so Obama is simply not going to pull all 100,000 soldiers out any time soon. How many troops actually do come home beginning this summer is both a political and a military question. Look for both the Pentagon and the White House to spar in the media over what the proper number of troops to bring home will be, in the next few months.
Across the border from Afghanistan is our currently-undeclared war in Pakistan. This is a diplomatic fiction, really. We are bombing Pakistan. It’s a fact. But, diplomatically, we do not admit it. This allows the Pakistani government to save face with its own citizens, and allows America to call Pakistan an “ally” — while simultaneously launching missile strikes on Pakistani territory from drone aircraft (normally, “an act of war”). The nicety of not admitting what we’re doing is necessary because Pakistan’s government is in an awfully dicey situation with its own public. Politics isn’t purely an American problem, in other words — all governments are sensitive to such things.
But the nature of the battlefield is such that our semi-clandestine military operations in Pakistan are necessary to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan. The border between the two is no more than a line drawn on an irrelevant map, to the Taliban. They come across the mountain passes to fight (which is why the war is so seasonal in Afghanistan, incidentally), and then retreat into the safe haven of Pakistani territory. Bombing Taliban targets in Pakistan is a logical military response for us. Unfortunately, this causes civilian casualties. Which weakens our ties with the Pakistani government. But the Pakistani government is also tied to groups which support the Taliban (including groups within the Pakistani government itself). Which is why the whole thing is so dicey to begin with. As we went to war in Libya, the question was raised: Do we know anything about the group we’re helping? In Pakistan, the same question is, at times, just as relevant.
Whether we admit it diplomatically or not, we are at war in certain regions of Pakistan. A recent incident has made the tension between our government and Pakistan’s even more difficult, when a person belatedly claimed by the C.I.A. shot two men to death on a city street. A retrieval team was sent to aid him from the embassy, and they ran over another man with their vehicle, killing him as well. What really happened is anyone’s guess in this spy-versus-spy incident, but it absolutely enraged Pakistan. The agent responsible (who may have been a C.I.A. agent, and may even have been a private security contractor, it remains unclear) was arrested and held in a Pakistani jail. America successfully got him transferred back to America, but only after days of a very tense standoff between the two governments. The fact that he was released to America, rather than tried in Pakistani courts, enraged the Pakistani public even more.
This sort of thing, as well as the civilian casualties from our bombing, has made the Pakistan situation so unsettled it is impossible to predict what will happen to our relationship next.
Iraq is the relative good news in the big picture of all our current wars. Things are not perfect in Iraq, but they sure are a lot calmer than the other places where America is militarily involved.
The ethnic and sectarian divisions in the country remain, though, and at times these explode violently — although not as violently as they used to, a few years back. The Kurdish situation hasn’t really been resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. Sunnis and Shi’ites are not exactly singing “Kumbaya” together. Even though the American media almost completely ignored it (due to the complication of the story line they were running with at the time), there were people on the street in Iraq when the whole “Arab Spring” movement was sweeping the region, demanding better government and redress of their grievances.
Muqtada Al Sadr, almost universally referred to in the American press with the prefix “Anti-American cleric,” now controls a large bloc of votes in the Iraqi government. Sadr holds no elected position himself, but what used to be his “Mahdi Army” now holds so many seats in the Iraqi Parliament that Sadr was part of a coalition which retained Nouri Al Maliki as prime minister, after the last elections. This makes many in the United States very worried, because they see it as increasing Iran’s influence in Iraq’s government — which (like protesters in the streets) was not exactly what the whole American plan for Iraq was supposed to all be about.
But again, back in Washington, there is a political struggle happening over our Iraqi policy. This is due to the fact that President George W. Bush, after making much political hay over the issue, was forced to accept a final withdrawal date for all American forces to leave Iraq at the end of 2011. That’s right — according to our agreement with Iraq, all troops have to come home by New Year’s Eve of this year. Currently, there are just short of 50,000 American troops in the country.
If any of this is going to change by then, it has to be in the form of a brand-new diplomatic agreement with the Iraqi government. To put it bluntly: they have to request that we stay. We don’t have veto power over whether our troops stay or not — they do.
This doesn’t sit well with some American politicians. There is a push on now to get the Obama White House to negotiate with Iraq a continued presence of around 10,000-15,000 American troops next year. But these negotiations, if they take place, will likely take months to work out (the last one, with Bush, took a whole year). Which is why the push is on now.
The Obama administration hasn’t really addressed the issue, one way or another (at least that I am aware of). Obama promised to end the war in Iraq, and so far he has met every milestone along that path.
There are arguments to make for keeping a residual force in Iraq — to train the Iraqi air force, to train up their navy, to provide expert support for the rest of their military, and to provide security for the embassy and diplomats. Whether that adds up to 15,000 boots on the ground or not is a subject that will doubtlessly be debated more and more as we approach our deadline for withdrawal.
[“Part 2” of this article has now been posted on my site, which finishes up the overview of Iraq and then discusses Libya. My apologies, but it was just too long to fit into one article.]
Chris Weigant blogs at:
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant
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