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The urgency of the economic meltdown has overshadowed the two wars the United States is still fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. That will not last.
Except for news that the Taliban has renewed it’s lust for wholesale killing and repressing women and the recent elections in Iraq, many Americans have all but forgotten that thousands of U.S. soldiers still risk their lives every day in Iraq and Afghanistan. The situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated dramatically in recent months; there is no doubt more U.S. soldiers will be sent to no man’s land between Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the Taliban and al Qaeda hide.
On the day of President Obama’s first prime-time press conference, four more Americans were killed Iraq. Yet the new president, who was elected in part because of his opposition to the war in Iraq, got only question on Iraq, and that was whether he would override the Bush administrations refusal to permit the news media to cover the return to U.S. soil of the caskets of soldiers killed there and in Afghanistan. (Obama said the matter is still under review.)
Obama noted that the moment the burdens of his new office were driven home to him came as he signed letters to the families of fallen soldiers. Americans killed in Iraq since 2003 number 4,244. Officially, another 31,035 have been wounded. There is no official U.S. count of how many Iraqi civilians have died; the number is believed to be nearly 100,000.
The invasion of Iraq began on March 20, 2003; next month, the sixth anniversary of the war will be observed. Is the United States any closer to winning the war or withdrawing its troops?
With the end of the Bush administration came a flood of new memoirs about the war and candid observations from military officials in charge. All offer gloomy prospects for Iraq, despite Obama’s promise to withdraw combat troops within 16 months. (Note the emphasis is on combat troops. Thousands of support troops are expected to stay.) There are 145,000 U.S. soldiers in Iraq.
Although American soldiers may be in Iraq for decades, many now think the most dangerous part of the world is Afghanistan and Pakistan, which has nuclear weapons and where Islamic radicals are gaining ascendancy.
In his press conference Obama said: "What we haven’t seen (along the border regions between the two countries) is the kind of concerted effort to root out those safe havens that would ultimately make our mission successful.” He added, "My bottom line is that we cannot allow al Qaeda to operate. We cannot have those safe havens in that region. And were going to have to work both smartly and effectively, but with consistency, in order to make sure that those safe havens don’t exist. I do not have yet a timetable for how long that’s going to take.” At least Obama has put a top U.S. diplomat, Richard Holbrooke, full-time on Afghanistan and Pakistan.
As for Iraq, two top generals Gen. Raymond Odierno, senior U.S. commander in Iraq, and Gen. David Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command, have told Obama they think 16 months is too soon for withdrawal. They want a longer timetable on grounds Americans are vital to help prevent total chaos and certain civil war, further destabilizing the Middle East. Odierno told The New York Times it might take the rest of the year to determine exactly when United States forces could be drawn down significantly.
The most recent book about Iraq, "The Gamble,” by Thomas E. Ricks of The Washington Post, is perhaps the most realistic, thorough and pessimistic book about the conduct of the war in the last two years.
Ricks believes strongly the war was misconceived but will not end for years. Perhaps his most chilling sentence is his last: The events for which the Iraq war will be remembered probably have not yet happened.
(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.)