Curtain Raiser

The 10 Thousand Too Many, Colltalers

All the justified indignation (and some phony righteousness too) about the scandal of treatment, or lack thereof, of U.S. veterans by the Dept. of Veterans Affairs, and the resignation of chief Eric Shinseki, has obscured an almost equally scandalous piece of news: President Obama’s speech last week about his decision to keep 9,800 troops in Afghanistan, even as combat operations will be officially over at end of this year.
We’ll get to that in a moment, but first let’s make something clear: life for U.S. Vets won’t improve with Shinseki’s exit, and not just because his 5-year tenure started already halfway through the wrecking the Iraq and Afghanistan wars was exacting on armed active troops and reserves.
On the contrary, his term was marked by his low key, straight talk personality, and his commitment to the wounded and the severely impaired being shipped from those hellholes by the planeload, and dropped on a daily basis at the doorstep of the VA system.
Neither was ever in question his under-reported behind-the-scenes struggle to tackle a task that proved each day bigger and more complex, by the sheer numbers of its caseloads, and the ingrained bureaucracy the agency’s inherited from past administrations.
In the end, for all attempts at curbing corruption and streamlining workflows, it was all too much – at one point, the simple task of digitalizing files got so vast that it became ‘easier’ to store them under lock and key than to transfer them – and staff began the undignified job of hiding files nationwide, manipulating numbers to appear efficient, while desperate former combatants languished and many died for lack of care.
As for the ‘phony righteousness’ mentioned above, consider that some of the same warmongers who led us to the unjustified tragedy in Iraq, and kept pressuring for troop increases in Afghanistan, are now the ones to lay the blame for the VA scandal on President Obama.
Not true, of course, but at this point, that’s besides the point: partisan fervor never lets facts get in the way of the ‘small government’ motto. Thus slashing social programs and administration jobs comes first, even if they wind up hurting veterans’ ability to seek outside help for their woes.
That being said, it’s worth noticing that the VA’s annual budgets under President Obama have risen 78%, to $65.9 billion, according to White House figures, even as Defense spending did not. For comparison, the entire U.S. military budget is set to be over $756 billion through 2015.
That doesn’t bode well to Shinseki’s leadership style, as many have pointed to his inability to seek specialized, tech-savvy outside help, choosing instead to preserve trusted ranks until it became clear that his position was unsustainable. His resignation may’ve come a few months too late.
But the root of the problems the VA is facing is set to remain in place even beyond 2015, and for that, not even if we’d had years of preparation, and a twice as big budget, there could be possibly a way to handle the harrowing task of tending to increasing rows of sick soldiers.
The reason why many are skeptical of the president’s assessment is based on the fact that, although the 38,000 combatants still left in Afghanistan are a far cry from the 88,000-plus that were there in 2011, this war for all practical purposes, is or should be over already.
Or over 2,000 dead American, plus an estimated 20,000 more civilian casualties, America’s longest war ever, and the slim pickings it managed to accomplish, are still not strong an argument to prove the point that, whatever we were fighting for over there, is no longer achievable?
Additionally, either because since the end of the draft, U.S. troops have been drawn from a relatively narrow swath of the population, while the majority tends to simply tune out their struggle overseas on a regular basis, or because it was a war whose objectives were hard to quantify to begin with, the American intervention in Afghanistan, albeit more legitimate than the one in Iraq, has produced exactly one visible result.
The killing of Osama Bin Laden, laden, no pun intended, with morally dubious justifications for revenge and psychological cleansing of the trauma of Sept. 11, can’t even begin to be assessed under a balanced rationale, without turning the issue into an inflamed diatribe over who’s more patriotic than whom, and why proving the world that the U.S. is a nation of laws wouldn’t quell its internal thirst for the blood of an enemy.
Thus, if what’s done is done, and few would dare challenging the Obama administration’s self-appointed apex of military accomplishment, which indeed put to shame the supposedly ‘macho’ antics of Dick Cheney and President George W., then it’s more than time to move on.
Yes, the U.S. is still responsible for the busting of Afghanistan’s already frail economy and society, as it’s in Iraq, and it’s fit to observe here, no one can tell that both countries are better off now than they were before being attacked, but that’s a theme for another post.
And yes, the U.S. still needs to mark its presence on those two countries, but as a collaborator with other ally nations, in the real reconstruction of infrastructure, educational and medical facilities, and, as often is the case, building from scratch what was not even there in the first place.
But it’s time to bring the troops home, and this year, not 2015, and almost 10,000 soldiers left there is almost 10,000 soldiers too many to be left there. Whatever the U.S. hasn’t achieved in 13 long, hard, bloodshed years, it won’t be accomplished in the next 24 months.
It’d be great if, as part of the same effort of retiring for good the self-attributed sobriquet of ‘world police,’ we’d also be prepared to bring home the thousands of Americans stationed since the end of WWII in countries such as Japan and Germany, but that, we know it, is asking for too much.
We’re already approaching 20% of the 21th century, and almost haven’t seen a day yet when U.S. troops are not killing or being killed in some inhospitable faraway land, under convoluted reasons. At the same time, we’re probably already as much time behind tackling other, way more important problems, such as climate change, unemployment, income inequality, with the ability to really destroy us without firing a single shot.
Talking about shots, there’s the issue of killing drones and how their infamous industry would thrive, with no more troops on the ground in Afghanistan and elsewhere. We’ve all seen what kind of hell they’re capable of exacting on innocent lives. But not even the most heavily armed of them all is a match for the will of civilian society and human hunger for peace. We’re betting on that side. Enjoy June ahead. WC


4 thoughts on “Curtain Raiser

  1. The United States accomplished “slim pickings” in these illegal invasions of foreign countries? I think “no pickings” is more accurate. I think all we did was open up a hornet’s nest over there.


  2. US troops aren’t going to be moved out of Afghanistan ever. With Iran bordering to the west, Pakistan to the east, and a sliver of the country bordering China, it’s just too handy as part of the crescent of Western-leaning energy-rich stans of Central Asia, to the north. The crescent is part of a much larger one which has Russia, and its few allies’ western and southern borders, almost completely blocked from Arctic Norway to China. One of the missing pieces happens to be Ukraine, by coincidence, or not.

    The former Soviet republics of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan,Tajikstan and Kyrgystan are afraid of both China Russia, and Pakistan as well as their own Islamic populations, which they keep under a tight rein. Energy-hungry India isn’t so far away either. Big brother America keeps hush about the air bases and missiles it keeps there. Not that it matters so much, as the average US citizen has never heard of them, let alone knows where they are.

    Moving completely out of Afghanistan might sandwich those Central Asian dictatorships rather too uncomfortably between Iran, an increasingly unpredictable Pakistan, and the huge land mass that makes up Kazakhstan to the north, which has thrown in its lot with Russia.

    When playing political chess at this level, they usually use more than one board.


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