Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Iraq and Afghanistan: Tipping Points Reached?

Just when you think things couldn’t get any worse in Iraq, the level of violence is ratcheted up another level. In the past six days alone, suicide bombers have taken out 200 civilians and 17 U.S. troops, with another 12 dying in a helicopter crash, while insurgents came awfully close to killing the U.S. ambassador, as well.

Sad to say, but the drumbeat of carnage has had a numbing effect on me, so this essay is, as much as anything, a self-inflicted effort to wake me from my torpor. May you be similarly moved.

You see, blown-apart Iraqi children have become mere statistics to me. Wrangling Iraqi politicians have come to resemble their Washington counterparts, only some of them wear funny clothes. And the never ending encyclicals from President Bush and Vice President Cheney urging Americans to stay the course until the latest iteration of "Mission Accomplished" is attained have come to sound like declarations from Alice's mad Queen of Hearts.

Combine all this with the news that there are gasoline shortages in a country awash with oil and that the availability of electricity and other basic municipal services still have not returned to pre-war levels in Baghdad and elsewhere, and it is difficult to not conclude that things in Iraq are very, very bad as the third anniversary of a war without end approaches (and the projected cost soars to over $2 trillion, according to a new study).

I'm not ignoring the good news in Iraq. There is some.

Some areas of the country are stable, notably the Kurdish north and British-patrolled south. The new Iraqi Army is finally showing some semblance of legitimacy. U.S. soldiers have become smarter in fighting the insurgency, although the Pentagon seems deaf and dumb to pleas to finally fixing the body and vehicle armor problem, and I've detected a disturbing trend toward playing it safe by calling in airstrikes, instead of ground troops, which can have unintentionally and indiscriminately awful side effects. (Be sure to let me know if you find more good news. Just make sure that you balance it with the big picture, okay?)

Then there is the matter of Afghanistan. Remember Afghanistan?

As Sen. Chuck Hagel, the Nebraska Republican, Vietnam vet and presidential wannabe notes, “Iraq is sucking the oxygen out of everything.” That includes Afghanistan, once a bright spot in the War on Terror.

The U.S. has given up any pretense of hunting down Osama bin Laden, withdrawn troops and support personal, slashed rebuilding monies and, in short, put the lie to the notion of staying the course, another favorite Bush-Cheney meme.

Yes, there is a semblance of an Afghan national government in a country historically allergic to centralized rule, let alone democracy. But Osama’s Al Qaeda-supported Taliban, vanquished in the months after the post-9/11 U.S.-led invasion, are back with a vengeance. The number of assassinations attributed to the Taliban doubled last year from the 2004 rate, and taking a lesson from their fellow bully boys in Iraqi, the number of roadside bombings and suicide attacks has increased.

Notes Ronald Neumann, the new U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, in a fit of candor exceedingly rare in the Age of Bush: “This is too critical to just say we want victory but we want in on the cheap.” Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

My gloomy Iraq assessment becomes darker still when you consider that the primary cause of the latest orgy of violence is political, specifically the battle between Sunni and Shiite politicians over power sharing in a new coalition government. Yes, a who’s who of insurgents, including terrorists operating under the Al Qaeda banner, are responsible for much of the bloodshed, but sectarian militias are playing an increasingly prominent role.

What is so frightening about all of this is that the insurgents and militias hold the upper hand; the politicians merely babble. And a real coalition government that could begin the long process of binding Iraq together, as well as speed the withdrawal of U.S. troops, seems more elusive than ever.

Horrible as it is to contemplate, Iraq – and Afghanistan, as well -- finally seem to have arrived at the tipping point between democracy and civil war. What’s so scary is that there’s not a freaking thing that the U.S. can do about it.

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