Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Leaving Iraq

I am constantly aware of the danger of crossing over from skeptic to cynic as an observer of American national security affairs. Nevertheless I am astonished by the reaction last week to President Obama’s announcement that U.S. troops will leave Iraq after eight years of war, over 4,400 U.S. lives, and more than a trillion dollars spent. My astonishment exists at the political, the strategic and the individual level.

Political opponents of President Obama such as Mitt Romney, Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham and others are criticizing him for executing a status of force agreement negotiated by George W. Bush, who the last I looked, is a fellow Republican. Bush negotiated this agreement before leaving office and Obama never repudiated it. In fact Obama is doing exactly what many Americans say they would like to have elected officials do; fulfill campaign promises. Candidate Obama said he would get us out of Iraq in a first term and never compromised that promise. (I, too, wish he had delivered on some others).

Strategically, some people believe and would like to have others believe that the U.S. now has and will have more influence in Iraq than Iran has. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said recently on Meet the Press, “No one should miscalculate America’s resolve and commitment to helping support the Iraqi democracy” and “We have paid too high a price to give Iraqis the chance. And I hope that Iran and no one else miscalculate that.” The fact is that Iran and Iraq are closely aligned by geography, religion, language, trade and a debt owed to Iran by current Iraqi leaders who lived in exile in Iran during Saddam Hussein’s rule. Muctada al Sadar, a radical cleric who is an Iranian proxy, is the power broker who kept the head of Iraq, Nuri al Maliki, in place. Furthermore the rational for keeping a U.S. military presence in Iraq, protecting Iraqi airspace, stabilizing its borders, and being an intelligence resource do not pass any rational test of demonstrated U.S. capability or intent.

Finally, I have had a number of conversations with my friends, neighbors and acquaintances who feel strongly that the withdrawal is a mistake. The irony of their position is that it not only lacks facts but more importantly the lack of commitment or investment. None of them served in the military and none of them have children or grandchildren who are serving in the military. So when I ask them if they are willing to pay a quarterly war tax to finance the Iraq war or have their children and/or grandchildren drafted to serve in Iraq, all say NO thus identifying themselves a chicken hawks at worst or uninformed limited liability patriots at best.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011


One thing that every U.S. official, military and civilian, who has responsibility for Afghanistan agrees upon is that the eradication of the poppy crop in Afghanistan is critical to defeating the Taliban and establishing some form of stable, democratic, central government there. The United Nations drug control agency reported earlier this week that the amount of land sown with poppies increased by 7% this year. It was the second consecutive year that poppy cultivation rose. This rise has occurred despite hundreds of millions of dollars spent by the U.S. government to disrupt opium smuggling operations and the insurgent networks that profit from them.

Afghan economic realities trump American aspirations and “magical thinking”. We are trying to convince Afghan farmers who have cultivated poppies for generations to grow wheat, pomegranates and saffron instead of poppies which can yield more than $4000 per acre. Do the math. What would you grow? Because of rising prices and higher production the value of the opium produced in Afghanistan is set to more than double this year to $1.4 billion equal to 9% of Afghanistan’s GDP and approximately equal to the government’s annual tax revenues. The majority of that $1.4 billion will flow to the Taliban and Afghan warlords.

After several years of asking the question, “What does success (winning) in Afghanistan look like?” without anything resembling a good answer, I may be a step closer by identifying failure.