Tonight, President Obama sat at the same desk from which George W. Bush announced the bombing in Iraq in 2003 to declare the end of “combat operations.” The war in Iraq has faded to the background for most people in America, while soldiers and Iraqis have had their lives upturned and will continue to do so whether the “Operation Iraqi Freedom” portion of the war has ended or not.
As Peace Action West has been arguing since the debate around Iraq withdrawal began, leaving a residual force of 50,000 troops does not constitute the end of a war. In addition to the transitional force, who will still be armed and likely see combat, the number of private contractors is going to double. While it is encouraging that the Obama administration has followed through on its original timeline, we must be vigilant in remembering that the occupation of Iraq continues and make sure that at a minimum the troops are withdrawn by the end of 2011 as promised.
When President Obama discussed the end of the war in Afghanistan, it was clear that the voices of those of us who oppose the war are being heard, and congressional impatience about the war is having an impact. The president acknowledged the plummeting support for the war, and reemphasized his plan to start withdrawing troops in 2011, stating, “But make no mistake: this transition will begin – because open-ended war serves neither our interests nor the Afghan people’s.” Unfortunately, he gave no indication of a clear end date for withdrawal, citing conditions on the ground as the deciding factor, and offered the same tired justifications for the war that fail to hold up to scrutiny.
While the war in Iraq is not over for the 50,000 troops, their families, and the people of Iraq, it’s only getting worse in Afghanistan. President Obama acknowledged flagging public support for the war, but implored Americans not to lose sight of what’s at stake. We have seen all too clearly what is at stake this week, as 22 American troops were killed in just the last 5 days, and civilian casualties have spiked. Afghan President Hamid Karzai said, “the strategy of the war on terrorism must be reassessed. . . . The experience over the past eight years showed that fighting [the Taliban] in Afghan villages has been ineffective and is not achieving anything but killing civilians.” In addition to the cost in lives, President Obama explicitly pointed out the cost here at home, with over $1 trillion spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan so far.
In his attempt to rally support for the counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, President Obama did not offer anything new or convincing. He is still asking for the tremendous sacrifice he eloquently described in the service of a strategy that is inappropriate to the threat from Al Qaeda and if anything is making the violence worse in Afghanistan. I have written many times before about why a military strategy is a tragic waste of resources, and President Obama did not offer any evidence to justify spending $1.7 billion per Al Qaeda member in Afghanistan every year.
President Obama talked about the tough decisions that will have to be made to deal with our country’s fiscal problems, but cutting our exorbitant military spending didn’t surface as one of them. In discussing the war in Iraq, President Obama said, “there were patriots who supported this war, and patriots who opposed it.” It is our duty to respond not by accepting the misguided assumptions driving this war, but by redoubling our efforts to hold the president and Congress to defining a clear end game for Afghanistan and bringing our troops and tax dollars home.