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Weekly News Roundup: Still No Government in Iraq, Gates Urges More to Volunteer, Drones in Pakistan

written by Matt Elliott
on October 01, 2010

The lead this week isn't a news item, but a lack-of-news item — the lack of any news about the formation of a central government in Baghdad. In fact, it's a record-breaking accomplishment. According to The Washington Post, as of today, Iraq has gone longer between holding a parliamentary election and forming a government than any other country in history. Previous record holder, the Netherlands, is now off the hook, having gone 207 days between elections and forming a government in 1977.

"As politicians jockey for positions and broker deals in backroom meetings, many Iraqis now say they wonder why they risked their lives to vote on March 7. U.S. officials are increasingly concerned that the lack of an elected government has limited Iraq's ability to make national decisions and could eventually eat away at hard-earned security gains. The most optimistic of Iraqi politicians expect the process to take at least another month, if not much longer."

What will it take for Iraq to establish a working government? In a thoughtful piece for the Council on Foreign Relations, Michael Eisenstadt argues that the United States may need to "maintain a military presence in Iraq while pushing leaders in Baghdad toward national reconciliation and political accountability." He suggests the possibility of leaving one or two brigades — 5,00 to 10,000 troops — past 2011 to quell violence as Iraq searches for national leaders to initiate a national reconciliation process "in which a broad-based governing coalition would give elements from every community a stake in the political order."

Though violence continues to plague Iraq, this CNN story illustrates improving conditions, as the country slowly moves from battle zone to emerging market. The first U.S. trade mission to Iraq since the end of the combat mission will happen this month. "The trade mission is designed to bring American and Iraqi businesses together to rebuild Iraq's economy, and to 'facilitate match-making' between like-minded U.S. and Iraqi companies, with potential economic and commercial benefits for both countries, according to a Commerce Department official."

It's not all development and economic opportunity in Iraq: although the U.S. combat mission has ended, the troop deployments continue. Roughly a thousand soldiers from the Army's 4th Infantry Division are headed back to Iraq. It will be their fourth and most likely their last deployment." Right now, as the security agreement reads, this is the last division going over to Iraq," Maj. Gen. David Perkins said. "So we will put the last fingerprint on the American presence in Iraq."

Many more troops are heading home as the drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq continues. Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned this week that he expects to see an increase in suicides and other personal and family problems as soldiers adjust to life stateside after repeated deployments. "I think we are going to see a significant increase in the challenges that we have in terms of our families because they are going to have some time home and things that have been pent up or packed in or basically suppressed." Mullen continued, "The emergency issue right now is suicides. We had five suicides in the Army last weekend."

Speaking to students at Duke University, Defense Secretary Robert Gates urged more Americans to volunteer for the Armed Forces, pointing out that no war in American history has been fought with a smaller percent of its citizens, currently less than one percent. "These young men and women have seen the complex, grueling, maddening face of asymmetric warfare in the 21st century up close. They've lost friends in combat. Some are struggling psychologically with what they've seen and heard and felt on the battlefield. And yet, they keep coming back."

In America's other war, Predator drones were making headlines. As the C.I.A. increases drone attacks in Pakistan in recent weeks, unconfirmed reports from Pakistan indicate that a Predator strike on September 25 killed Sheikh Fateh al Masri, al Qaeda's newly appointed leader of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In this vivid account on The New York Times At War blog, Steven Farrell recounts his experience of being kidnapped by the Taliban in Afghanistan, with drones constantly circling overhead. He observed his captors' indifference to the planes as they moved freely in the open. These Taliban fighters found the drones much less of a nuisance than in previous years when the government controlled the area, where they had to avoid Afghan National Army and NATO forces.

"'You think this is difficult for us, you think this is hardship,' said one, after the third or fourth change of location within 24 hours. 'Only two or three years ago we had to spend weeks and months locked inside buildings in the dark. Now it is much easier for us to move around and assemble than it used to be. This is nothing for us.'"

According to a recent poll of Pakistani tribal areas, only 16 percent of those polled believe that drones "accurately target militants" while 48 percent believe they "largely kill civilians." It would seem that no matter how many militants the United States can kills via drone strikes, it creates more militants in the process.

In the end, photos are able to paint a clearer picture of a place than any poll can. Check out the two photo collections from Afghanistan I link to in my earlier post this week, and to better understand the brutality of war and its effects, look at this series of portraits that explore the aftermath of war.

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