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Weekly News Roundup: A New Way Forward in Afghanistan, an Impasse in Iraq

written by Matt Elliott
on September 10, 2010

We start this week's roundup with a new report released on Wednesday titled A New Way Forward: Rethinking U.S. Strategy in Afghanistan. Put together by a group of foreign policy scholars and policymakers, the report states that our current military efforts in Afghanistan are failing and may be counterproductive to our goals for the region. It concludes we must establish more modest goals for Afghanistan and set out on a fundamentally new direction to achieve them:

The bottom line is clear: Our vital interests in Afghanistan are limited and military victory is not the key to achieving them.

On the contrary, waging a lengthy counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan may well do more to aid Taliban recruiting than to dismantle the group, help spread conflict further into Pakistan, unify radical groups that might otherwise be quarreling amongst themselves, threaten the long-term health of the U.S. economy, and prevent the U.S. government from turning its full attention to other pressing problems.

The more promising path for the U.S. in the Af/Pak region would reverse the recent escalation and move away from a counterinsurgency effort that is neither necessary nor likely to succeed.

The report mentions the thousands of lives lost and billions of dollars spent in an attempt to eradicate Al Qaeda and topple the Taliban. In regard to these two foes, it states that Al Qaeda's presence in Afghanistan is no longer significant, and defeating the Taliban is not necessary to protect U.S. interests because conditions in Afghanistan are different today than they were when the Taliban rose to power. The report concludes, "The U.S. interests at stake in Afghanistan do not warrant this level of sacrifice" and lays out a five-point plan that is "less reliant on military force in favor of a focus on political inclusion, economic development, and regional diplomacy."

Meanwhile, another report surfaced this week, this one quite disturbing. A dozen U.S. soldiers have been charged with murdering Afghan civilians and keeping body parts as trophies. The 12 soldiers, all from the same Stryker brigade, are charged with 76 crimes from their recent deployment to Afghanistan. The crimes include premeditated murders of three Afghan civilians and the beating of one or more fellow soldiers. Six of the men face charges of taking body parts from Afghan corpses, including a skull and fingers.

In striking contrast to the above story, it was reported this week that a soldier who died two years ago in Afghanistan will receive the Medal of Honor on October 6 from President Obama. Staff Sergeant Robert J. Miller, U.S. Army, will receive the Medal of Honor posthumously for his heroic actions in Afghanistan on January 25, 2008. He displayed immeasurable courage and uncommon valor, eventually sacrificing his own life to save the lives of his teammates and 15 Afghanistan National Army soldiers.

Frontline has a story this week about the Purple Heart being routinely denied to soldiers who suffer traumatic brain injuries (TBI). The old cliché — If you're not bleeding, it's not serious — still holds, with some military officials claiming that giving the Purple Heart for concussions would lessen its value. Watch this Frontline report to see how concussions and other brain injuries affect U.S. veterans and the struggle they face for recognition of their sacrifice.

A similar topic is explored in an Italian documentary being shown at the Venice Film Festival. "Ward 54," named for military's Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, tells the story of three U.S. war veterans who served in Iraq and how the military handled their cases.

Meanwhile, in Iraq the U.S. death toll continues to rise while Iraq's parliament remains at an impasse six months after the national election with the first two casualties since the United States officially ended its combat missions in Iraq. Two American soldiers were killed and nine were wounded on Tuesday when a firefight erupted inside an Iraqi Army base north of Baghdad. The violence continues, and the formation of a legitimate government remains stalled. According to a Gulf News report, "Political analysts and politicians said they have almost lost hope that any solution to the present situation will be found without strong interference by external powers."

Sounds like we will have some presence in Iraq well past our exit at the end of next year. In an attempt to follow the various and changing stories over the course of this 7.5-year war, an enterprising designer and programmer named James Bridle put together a 12-volume history of the Iraq war, as told via the edits to the Iraq War Wikipedia article. In his blog, Bridle writes:

This particular book — or rather, set of books — is every edit made to a single Wikipedia article, The Iraq War, during the five years between the article's inception in December 2004 and November 2009, a total of 12,000 changes and almost 7,000 pages. It amounts to twelve volumes: the size of a single old-style encyclopaedia. It contains arguments over numbers, differences of opinion on relevance and political standpoints, and frequent moments when someone erases the whole thing and just writes "Saddam Hussein was a d---head."

Elsewhere in reference book news, two Stanford Law students wrote textbooks for law students in Afghanistan trying to learn the country's new laws from the constitution introduced in 2007. According an an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, "the group has written three online law books, with a fourth being published this fall. The textbooks have been so successful that the U.S. State Department awarded Stanford a $1.3 million grant to continue the work."

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