Economic decline. Mounting deficits. Political deadlock. Two wars. With all these problems and more (read: an upcoming presidential election), you would think Washington would allow our exhausted military to return home after nearly a decade of war and focus on fixing the economy. Instead, it seems that we have decided to extend our stay in Iraq and Afghanistan.
According to a Friday report in the U.K.’s Daily Telegraph, the United States and Afghanistan have tentatively agreed to a new Status of Forces Agreement that would allow U.S. troops to remain in the country until at least 2024. That very same day, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta also disclosed that the Iraqi government has acquiesced to negotiating an extension to the presence of U.S. forces in the country.
But this is a mistake. Oct. 7 will mark America’s 10th year at war. As we near this tragic milestone, we must re-evaluate our positions in Iraq and Afghanistan and ask ourselves why we are still there and how much — in both blood and treasure — we are willing to pay to retain a foothold in these countries.
In Iraq, security conditions, admittedly, have much improved since the bleak days of the Sunni Insurgency. This year American forces have suffered less than 50 deaths, compared to nearly 1,000 in 2007. Yet this past Monday, al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia announced the beginning of a 100-attack campaign to avenge the death of Osama bin Laden. This announcement was accompanied by a series of 40 attacks in Baghdad that claimed the lives of more than 90 Iraqis. If almost 200,000 Coalition forces actively engaged in counterterrorism duties could not suppress al-Qaeda and various insurgent militias, it is doubtful that 50,000 troops relegated to garrison duty can.
Politically, Iraq remains an unstable and undependable ally. The 2010 parliamentary elections confirmed the depth of divisions in Iraqi society, as political infighting and allegations of electoral fraud left the country without a government for nearly six months. And into the breach Iran has stepped. Despite the presence of U.S. troops in the country, our regional rival has managed to sink its roots into all levels of government, particularly with the ruling coalition led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Iranian influence is so pervasive that al-Maliki recently backed Iranian ally Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal crackdown, even as the rest of the world condemned his crimes against humanity.
Conditions in Afghanistan are no better. Administration officials admit that President Hamid Karzai is a corrupt and incompetent ally whose inept leadership has reinforced a culture of skepticism and distrust towards the government. Scandals like the fraudulent 2009 presidential election and the pending insolvency of Kabul Bank are routine in the country. And unlike in Iraq, Afghanistan’s economy is nonexistent. According to the World Bank, 97 percent of Afghanistan’s GDP is dependent on foreign military spending and humanitarian aid. With chronic instability and violence, investors simply will not bankroll the country’s development.
And to be frank, I don’t blame them. Despite a surge of troops to nearly 150,000 soldiers, the country remains a war zone. Earlier this month, 30 American soldiers were killed when their helicopter was shot down by the Taliban, bringing our death count for 2011 to 299. This, combined with a major Taliban offensive in May and the assassinations of prominent leaders, such as Karzai’s half-brother and the governor of the Oruzgan Province, indicates that military success is unlikely.
With economic turmoil at home, and little hope of “victory” in Iraq and Afghanistan, why are we planning for long-term presences in these countries? For strategic planners in the Pentagon and the White House, Iraq is the key to American influence in the Middle East. However, despite our occupation, Iran has already become Iraq’s next best friend. Given our strong ties to Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain, forcibly maintaining our relationship with Iraq is a luxury we do not need and cannot afford.
Likewise, Afghanistan is seen as a strategic outpost bordering Pakistan, Iran and China. However, the cost of maintaining an army in Afghanistan is enormous. At best, it’s a $120 billion per year boondoggle and at worst it’s a major liability as a sinkhole for troops, money and prestige. Given the collapse of our relationship with Pakistan, we would be better served by strengthening our ties and focusing on cooperating with India, China and Russia — all major powers facing a common threat from Muslim extremists.
In the end, we must look at our legacy in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Reeling from the events of 9/11, we launched the War on Terror, vowing to bring those responsible to justice. Nearly 10 years later, we are embroiled in two long wars, having spent as much as $3.7 trillion and sustained more than 47,000 casualties. As many as about 600,000 Afghans and Iraqis have suffered similar fates, with another 7.8 million displaced as a result of war. However, we have brought Osama bin Laden and thousands of terrorists to account for their crimes, and we have helped to establish two democracies, if still heavily flawed.
To me, it seems as if we have done what we can. Let’s end these wars and focus on our problems at home.
Hinh Tran is a UC Berkeley undergraduate student.