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Wall Street bailout won't cut the cost of fighting in Iraq

There's a shadow on the faces
Of the men who sell the guns
For the wars that are fought in places
Where their business interests run..." – Jackson Browne

Dec. 2, 2008
by Rob Lafferty

With all the talk about various financial crises and the need for the government to pump money into a struggling economy, not much is being said about the massive amounts of US dollars flowing into military operations in the desert sands of Iraq and mountain valleys of Afghanistan.

How much money? Forget about numbers, there are so many, so massive that they're almost meaningless. It's just one huge pile of cash, the equivalent of taking several thousand dollars out of the pockets of every man, woman and child in America every year during each the past five years.

Add at least three more years to that total right now, because it's likely that we'll still have at least 30,000 US troops in Iraq through 2011. From the perspective of military commanders, that number is beginning to look like the operative number for troops to be permanently stationed in Iraq.

Administration officials recently held a closed briefing for US House of Representatives members on an agreement that sets a 2011 deadline for US troops to withdraw from Iraq. It's called the Status of Forces Agreement, and it's top secret in English, anyway. The Bush administration wouldn't release any copies or discuss any details of the agreement, and still won't. You could read it in Arabic right away, however, thanks to al-Sabah, a newspaper funded by the Iraqi government, and now there are several English translations available from Arabic sources.

The second public reading in Iraq's Parliment of the SOFA dissolved into chaos when a near-riot erupted between two of the major political factions in that deeply divided government. The agreement was ratified in the end, but the vote was close. It's likely that suicide bombers and "insurgents" who fight gun battles with US troops will never respect any agreement unless it's in their own best interests, so violence will continue to be a way of life in Baghdad and Mosul and every major town in the country.

One major problem for all parties involved was the question of Iraqi legal jurisdiction over crimes committed by American soldiers. It's important to many Iraqi lawmakers who steadily insisted on that legal protection as part of any agreement. It's also been a condition that the Bush administration resisted as long as possible, but now appear to have conceded or so it would seem from reading a translation of the proposed agreement provided by Radio Free Europe.

Included in that agreement are terms stating that all US troops will get out of the towns and villages of Iraq by June of 2009, returning to quarters on seven major airbases and dozens of outposts established in the country where they presumably will hunker down and wait to called upon for special operations. They'll probably do some training of Iraqi military forces while they're waiting out their of duty. It could mean safer, more comfortable tours than our soldiers endured in the past, but the whole arrangement makes one question the need for those troops to be there at all.

That arrangement is also a direct insult to the 30 percent of the Iraqi people who openly oppose any agreement that allows American soldiers to remain on sovereign Iraq soil beyond the Dec. 31 deadline now imposed by the United Nations. At a public referendum to be held in July 2009, the Iraqi people will vote. If they reject this agreement, US troops will have just one year to withdraw completely or maybe not, according to various interpretations of the document.

It seems likely that a majority of the Iraqi people will reject the agreement, partly because the process of ratification was illegal under Iraq's Constitution. The law requires a two-thirds majority for passage of an accord of this kind; the al-Maliki administration has decided that the SOFA pact will take effect despite reaching only a bare majority of votes for approval.

The agreement also stipulates that the US will defend Iraq against any "external or internal danger" without, in the eyes of military command, stating any specific end date for that obligation. Those US commanders also plan to have troops there training and supporting the Iraqi police and military for much longer than three years.

There's also the matter of the Green Zone in the heart of Baghdad where the massive US Embassy complex is located. That entire area will need high security from frequent mortar and rocket attacks that are difficult to defend against. It's unlikely that we'll ever leave protection of the Green Zone to Iraqi security forces.

So the nightmare in the minds of a lot of folks who fear the humiliation of American troops flying home in droves during the last days of the Bush administration while most of their equipment lies stranded in the desert, looted or burned, is one that quickly fades under the harsh light of reality. There's been a steady stream of equipment flowing into the country for more than five years now; it could take almost as long to get all of it out.

So we won't be leaving quickly even if we decide tomorrow to stop risking the lives of US soldiers on patrols there. We'll keep sending troops and private contractors in for at least the next two years, pouring more money into those huge air bases and hundreds of other facilities that should never have been constructed in the first place.

We've already spent deep pools of money and fossil fuels to ship all our Occupation stuff over there. Now we'll spend more to keep it all there a year or two longer before we start bringing some of it home, where we'll declare it surplus and sell it off cheap.

All of that could change, but it won't be the Obama administration that changes conditions in Iraq. It seems unlikely, but the Iraqi people might yet unify beyond expectations and insist that we leave them to their own devices. If they get serious, then leave we will and we'll leave a lot of our stuff behind.

Which might well be the best thing to do right now, given current circumstances. If we start turning over the facilities we've built to the Iraqi government and give our non-weaponry equipment to the Iraqi people, then our soldiers can leave a little bit sooner, we'll earn some much-needed good will and save a ton of money at the same time.

Because we'll be needing those soldiers and that money for the planned escalation of military operations inside Afghanistan and across the border into Pakistan. That buildup was an Obama campaign promise and is almost certain to happen despite the recent words of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

"This war has gone on for seven years," Karzai said. "The Afghans don't understand anymore how come a little force like the Taliban can continue to exist, can continue to flourish, can continue to launch attacks with 40 countries in Afghanistan, with entire NATO force in Afghanistan, with the entire international community behind them. Still we are not able to defeat the Taliban."

Karzai is ready to open negotiations and tone down the military approach. US bombs and rockets have killed a lot of innocent Afghani people over the years, and the frequency of civilian deaths is increasing. Karzai faces re-election next year, so he's making a political message when he complains about the loss of innocent lives. He knows that outside the capital of Kabul, US involvement in Afghan affairs is deeply resented by most of the people in this ancient, independent land.

So the reality on the ground won't be driving our military policy in Iraq or Afghanistan during the next few years. The will of the majority in either country won't be respected. US troops will continue to sacrifice their lives for an undetermined and questionable cause. And we'll keeping poring money into those combined Middle East operations despite our desperate need to invest that money right here at home.