Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Perspective: On this day in Iraq -- October 3rd edition

October 3, 2006: Iraqi police from Diyala take part in SWAT training at Forward Operating Base McHenry.

October 3, 2002:

Make draft not war

With a possible war against Iraq looming, it may not be long before the United States begins amassing thousands of troops at the Saudi border again. What a melancholy contrast then, to see so many privileged students wandering about last week, joining a riot while shouting "U-S-A!"

We must instill discipline in these kids and channel their excess energy. We should reinstate the military draft.

Attitudes toward the military have changed since the Vietnam War. In May 1970, the Ohio National Guard killed four people at Kent State. That spring, protesters in Eugene attempted to torch the ROTC building on campus. These students decried the deaths of 58,000 Americans and two million Vietnamese. Only the end of the draft in 1973 quelled anti-war protests.

Slowly, ROTC returned to college campuses, and students came back to ROTC. There are now 200,000 cadets nationwide, according to The Oregonian. As we face new terrorist threats, maybe it's time for young civilians to share the burdens, as well as blessings, of liberty. Draftees could work at airports, fight wildfires and patrol sporting events. They could quell the occasional riot in Eugene, or join former drug czar Bill Bennett's proposed "patriot SWAT team" to silence dissenters.

Recently, Uncle Sam has been cracking down on Oregon schools. In 1997, our law school was forced to exempt military recruiters from its policy forbidding discrimination against gays. Now the government is back for younger bodies. Two weeks ago, the Portland school district reversed its six-year ban on military recruiters in return for funds from President George W. Bush's education plan. Oregon high schools now must give recruiters a list of students' names, addresses and phone numbers. The name of Bush's plan? "No Child Left Behind."

A draft may bring racial balance to our military. The Army's Web site notes that 45 percent of Army enlistees are minorities; 29 percent are black. Unlike in higher education, we don't hear conservatives moan about overrepresentation of minorities in the military. A draft ensures middle-class white males are fairly represented on the frontlines.

A draft could do what Bush can't -- help end the recession. It will create a huge underpaid work force and stop wages from rising, which dovetails nicely with the pro-business Republican agenda.

A draft would relieve the Pentagon from having to recruit and indoctrinate 17-year-olds who can't even vote. According to UNICEF, about 300,000 children serve at the pleasure of governments and rebel groups. By ending the recruitment of children, we could become a moral superpower as well as a military one.

If everyone served, we might even cure the overwhelmingly male, conservative bias of the military. In Israel, where military service is compulsory, citizens of all political stripes are well-represented. Earlier this year, 100 reserve officers refused to serve in Palestinian territory. They declared their unwillingness to fight for the purpose of "dominating, expelling, starving and humiliating an entire people." If only our officers spoke their conscience!

A draft could make our leaders more conscientious, too. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney avoided the Vietnam draft, as did many other chicken hawks whose Iraq policy amounts to "sentence first, verdict afterwards." But Secretary of State Colin Powell and Senator John Kerry, both decorated Vietnam vets, have argued for a more restrained approach to disarming Iraq. Could service in battle make leaders think carefully before starting another war?

The draft may soon be a fait accompli. With Selective Service in place, the government could start running a lottery just hours after Congress passes a draft bill. An auditorium in Washington, D.C., has been reserved for this special occasion. In the name of national security, let's agree not to debate this modest proposal. Otherwise, the terrorists will have won.

Read the rest at the University of Oregon Daily Emerald

October 3, 2003:

In Iraq, a scramble for troops

In the next few weeks, the Pentagon has a tough and politically sensitive decision to make.

If the Iraq coalition - mainly the United States and Britain - does not soon have firm commitments of enough international troops to make an additional division, then it will be necessary to mobilize more National Guard and Reserve troops. This may leave American forces stretched too thin to meet unpredictable global contingencies. It may also stir reaction from families at home, who are increasingly distressed about the fate of their loved ones serving ever-longer assignments in an often-hostile environment.

At the moment, there are about 144,000 American and 14,000 British troops in and near Iraq. There are also two international divisions, one under British command, the other under Polish. Some of the international elements are quite small - for example, the 180 Mongolians who are being used to guard petroleum pipelines.

For the Pentagon, the most immediate problem is that the 101st Airborne Division is scheduled to be rotated home in February or March. Unless it can be replaced by an international division, it will be necessary to start the training and orientation of American replacements soon. Some Reserve troops already have been alerted.

The question of foreign troops is currently bogged down in the negotiations for a new United Nations resolution, without which countries like Pakistan and Turkey are refusing to contribute troops.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration is under pressure in Congress to bring home troops as soon as possible. At a stormy hearing of the Senate Appropriations Committee, ranking Democrat Robert Byrd of West Virginia told Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that he had heard from many families anxious to know when their loved ones would be coming home. Senator Byrd said that "pulling their fair share gets harder and harder as their fair share gets longer and longer and longer."

Pentagon officials worry that the increasing deployment of National Guard and Reserves in unpleasant and hazardous situations will discourage recruitment and retention. White House officials worry about the impact on voters. But, at this point, there is not much reason for optimism that foreign troops will be coming soon to relieve the long-serving GIs.

Read the rest at the Christian Science Monitor

October 3, 2004:

Influx of Wounded Strains VA

Thousands of U.S. troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with physical injuries and mental health problems are encountering a benefits system that is already overburdened, and officials and veterans' groups are concerned that the challenge could grow as the nation remains at war.

The disability benefits and health care systems that provide services for about 5 million American veterans have been overloaded for decades and have a current backlog of more than 300,000 claims. And because they were mobilized to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, nearly 150,000 National Guard and reservist veterans had become eligible for health care and benefits as of Aug. 1. That number is rising.

At the same time, President Bush's budget for 2005 calls for cutting the Department of Veterans Affairs staff that handles benefits claims, and some veterans report long waits for benefits and confusing claims decisions.

"I love the military; that was my life. But I don't believe they're taking care of me now," said Staff Sgt. Gene Westbrook, 35, of Lawton, Okla. Paralyzed in a mortar attack near Baghdad in April, he has received no disability benefits because his paperwork is missing. He is supporting his wife and three children on his regular military pay of $2,800 a month as he awaits a ruling on whether he will receive $6,500 a month from the VA for his disability.

Through the end of April, the most recent accounting the VA could provide, a total of 166,334 veterans of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan had separated from military service, and 26,633 -- 16 percent -- had filed benefits claims with the VA for service-connected disabilities. Less than two-thirds of those claims had been processed, leaving more than 9,750 recent veterans waiting.

Officials expect those numbers to increase as the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan continues.

"I think we're doing okay now, but I am worried," VA Secretary Anthony J. Principi said in a recent interview. "It is something you have to be concerned about. We don't have a good handle on the extent to which the demand for care and benefits will be a year or five years from now."

Principi acknowledged that one of the most challenging elements of providing for recently returned veterans is the disconnect between the Defense Department and the VA. His department has been working to streamline the process, he said, placing VA staff members at 136 bases across the country and at military medical centers.

But people such as Westbrook still fall into a no-man's land.

Westbrook was deployed to Iraq in January as a drill sergeant, sent to train Iraqi army recruits. While on duty April 28 south of Sadr City in Baghdad, he was hit by a mortar shell, and the shrapnel severed his spine. He is now paralyzed from the chest down, has limited movement in his right arm, and battles constant infections. His wife takes care of him full time.

Though Westbrook praises the way the Army has treated him since his injury, including providing excellent medical care, he has struggled to make it on his regular pay since he returned July 14. "They're supposed to expedite the process, and they have not done that," he said, adding that officers in his Army unit have been trying in vain to help. Charities have been set up in his honor to help defray costs.

"It's very draining, because I don't know what to do, and my family is asking when we'll get the money," he said. "It's the hardest part about this whole thing."

What injured or ill veterans are finding when they return from overseas is a complex set of government processes for reviewing whether they will receive financial help. They have to navigate two of the largest U.S. government bureaucracies in the VA and the Pentagon, and multiple medical review boards assess the extent of their injuries.

Even with the current backlog and the prospect of staffing cuts, VA officials are trying to increase the department's visibility, reaching out to new veterans to make sure they are aware of the services they can receive and urging them to apply.

Principi said he recently sent letters to 178,000 veterans explaining the available benefits. He said the department is doing its best to keep wait times down by giving recent veterans higher priority, aiming for benefit claims that are filled within 100 days. Currently, the VA takes about 160 days per claim, and 60,000 to 70,000 new claims come in each month.

There is also a more concerted effort to identify veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition that experts estimate affects about 15 percent of veterans. Principi said he believes mental health concerns could become a dominant issue for the VA as insurgent warfare places new pressures on U.S. troops and as American society places more emphasis on mental health.

A Government Accountability Office report issued Sept. 20 concluded that the VA does not have enough information to determine whether it can handle a rush of PTSD cases.

"The system is already strained, and it's going to get strained even worse," said David Autry, a spokesman for Disabled American Veterans. "It's not a rosy picture at all, and they can't possibly hope to say they're going to provide timely benefits to the new folks if they can't provide timely care to the people already in the system."

For veterans, the VA's system for evaluating disability claims can be the most frustrating element of the process. Through the end of August, the agency had about 330,000 cases waiting to get a "rating," or a percentage figure approved by an evaluation board that decides how much a disabled veteran will receive monthly from the VA.

The ratings system uses a complex guide to calculate, for example, how disabling it is to lose a foot or to be blinded in one eye. Soldiers are rated from zero percent to 100 percent disabled, and compensation varies from nothing to thousands of dollars each month. Those rated 100 percent disabled are eligible to receive indefinite monthly payments aimed at allowing them to live without working.

Board decisions can take months as they weigh the severity of injuries and make sure they were suffered while the veteran was in the service. Appeals of such decisions can take years, and board decisions can be reevaluated.

"Sometimes it takes six months to a year to get your claim decided, sometimes longer," said Cathy Wiblemo, deputy director for health care at the American Legion. "We never think it's enough," Wiblemo said, referring to the disability payments. "It's hard to say that any amount of money can compensate for what these people have lost in defending our country."

Robert Acosta, 21, of Tustin, Calif., said he relies on his disability checks of $2,332 a month to survive, but the VA is now reevaluating his case. Acosta's right hand was blown off and his left leg was shattered when he was ambushed at the gate to Baghdad International Airport on July 13, 2003. The passenger in a Humvee, he grabbed a grenade that had been lobbed through the window, saving his driver.

Acosta said he cannot work because his prosthetic right hand has been giving him trouble, his left leg has not returned to normal and he suffers from nightmares. Initially, he was rated 70 percent disabled -- the medical board did not want to account for his leg injury, his PTSD claims and his hearing loss. After accepting those claims and rating him 100 percent disabled, the VA is questioning them again, asking Acosta to prove that some of his disabilities are service-related.

"They said there was no proof of it," Acosta said, referring to his PTSD claim. It took two months after he left the service for him to get his first disability payment, he said, and he spent his savings in the meantime. "I'm going to therapy every week. I'm working on it. I have bad dreams, I don't sleep at night and I get really jumpy. I don't know what they want me to do."

Rep. Lane Evans (Ill.), ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, said the VA is woefully underfunded and unprepared. The current budget for fiscal 2005, which is still pending in Congress even though the fiscal year ended on Thursday, calls for cutting more than 500 claims processors and does not meet the VA's basic funding requests.

"The VA is not ready for an influx of new veterans from the ongoing operations in Afghanistan and Iraq," Evans said.

Read the rest at the Washington Post

October 3, 2005:

If oil was the question, war wasn't the answer

'No blood for oil" was a popular refrain used by antiwar demonstrators in Washington late last month. The message assumes President Bush launched the invasion of Iraq to get access to its oil.

The Bush administration denies this charge. And motives aren't always transparent when not stated.

But if oil was one of his goals, among others, the war has been far from a success. Iraqi oil isn't likely to provide much relief to tight world supplies and high gasoline prices anytime soon.

Iraq's oil output, hit frequently by sabotage, remains below its prewar level. Revenues from oil exports are inadequate to pay for Iraq's reconstruction. In arguing for removal of Saddam Hussein prior to the war, then-Deputy Secretary of State Paul Wolfowitz predicted the oil would pay the bill. Rather, US taxpayers are picking up the tab.

Nor is it plain whether American oil companies will eventually benefit from the war. They opposed launching it.

"Nothing is clear now about [Iraqi] oil policy in the long run," says Fadhil Chalabi, executive director of the Centre for Global Energy Studies in London. "Nobody can tell what will happen to Iraqi oil. The Americans did nothing but create a mess of everything."

Most experts say Iraq is years from making a major contribution to the world oil supply. It's not that Iraq doesn't have plenty of oil. Dr. Chalabi, who was No. 2 in Iraq's oil ministry in 1976 before he left the country, notes that officially Iraq has 120 billion barrels of recoverable oil in its reserves. But a technical study undertaken by his think tank doubles those reserves, putting their size close to those of Saudi Arabia.

Iraq could quickly triple its current output to 5 million to 6 million barrels a day, many oil analysts have concluded. But Matthew Simmons, president of Simmons & Co. International in Houston, doubts that. Two large existing fields, Kirkuk in the north and Rumaila in the south, are "both over the hill," he notes in an e-mail. Further, it's "murky" whether exploration in western Iraq will discover more oil, he writes. Extensive searches in neighboring areas of Syria, Jordan, and northern Saudi Arabia have not turned up great oil fields.

As long as Iraq is wracked by insurgents and political uncertainty, no major oil company will risk billions of dollars to find and develop new oil resources there. "Everything depends on political developments," says A.F. Alhajji, an oil economist at Ohio Northern University in Ada. Even when political stability returns, history indicates it will take at least three or four years to boost output significantly.

Another complication is Iraq's draft constitution. It was stapled together in August and is subject to a referendum on Oct. 15. It calls for Iraq's federal government to manage existing oil fields in cooperation with the regions, sharing oil revenues. But any oil fields not yet in production will be the sole responsibility of the region in which they may be found.

"It's very confusing," says Chalabi, a relative of Iraq's present vice prime minister for oil and energy, Ahmed Chalabi.

If Iraq becomes a loose federation, foreign oil companies probably will negotiate with regional governments, not the central one. Some speculate that a Kurdish regime in the north might welcome American oil firms. But in the Shiite area in the south, where two-thirds of current oil reserves are located, the provincial government or governments might prefer to deal with Chinese, French, or other non-American oil firms. The influence of Iran's Shiite government is already considered substantial in southern Iraq.

China, keen to find oil resources, was negotiating with Saddam's government prior to the war.

From a geopolitical standpoint, the Iraq situation is fuzzy.

American senior policymakers have long seen military force as an effective way to ensure a supply of Middle East oil, holds Michael Klare, a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass. Oil is seen as a source of power. The United States is expected to retain permanent military bases in Iraq even if the insurgency dies down.

In August 2002, Vice President Dick Cheney listed the need to retain control over Gulf oil supplies as one reason to topple Saddam Hussein.

"Whoever controls Iraq's oil controls Iraq's destiny," says Dr.Alhajji. Oil revenues kept Saddam in power. But if Iraq becomes heavily dependent on oil revenues, he wonders, would this support democracy or tempt another Saddam to sneak into power? And if it is a democracy, he figures the government will squeeze foreign oil firms for the bulk of their revenues. "An Iraqi democratic government will not give its oil away," he says. Oil firms usually enjoy "more lucrative" profits in nations run by dictators.

Read the rest at the Christian Science Monitor

October 3, 2006:

Denial, arrogance led U.S. into Iraq trap

If there's a lesson from Bob Woodward's latest book, State of Denial, it's that the calamity that has unfolded over the past three years in Iraq was born of a ruinous mix of arrogance and naiveté from President Bush and his key deputies. Convinced that the war would be a walkover, they simply closed their ears to the many voices who warned of the impending dangers.

Although others have detailed the Bush administration's incompetence and head-in-the-sand attitude as the Iraqi insurgency took root, State of Denial provides fresh details about the myriad ways administration officials, particularly Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, bungled the Iraq war:

•Unrealistic plans. Rumsfeld's Pentagon accomplished the initial military campaign but botched the aftermath. It rejected recommendations that it would take about 450,000 troops to secure Iraq and sent one-third that number. It ignored a State Department blueprint that could have tamped down the looting, including of arms depots by future insurgents. Woodward relates disturbing anecdotes about administration pettiness on a level with high school. Rumsfeld cut others out of Iraq decisions and planning; for a time, he would not return the phone calls of then-National Security adviser Condoleezza Rice until ordered to do so.

•Refusing to shift course. Expert advice that could have made a difference was ignored. Woodward cites the first Iraq administrator, Jay Garner, telling Rumsfeld that three terrible — but reversible — mistakes had been made: banning Baath Party members from any new government; disbanding the Iraqi army; and rebuffing an interim leadership that could have put an Iraqi face on the nation's new government. None of those decisions was reversed, leaving thousands of well-armed fighters with little option other than rebellion. Woodward also recounts that former secretary of State Henry Kissinger privately criticized Bush for rarely even considering alternative courses of action.

•Misleading the public. Woodward's book is packed with details about the gulf between the information the administration had and the picture it presented in public. In May 2005, for example, Vice President Cheney told Larry King on CNN that the insurgency was in "the last throes" when Bush knew it was, in fact, worsening.

Hovering in the background is the role of father-son psychology. Woodward touches lightly on it: He relays how Bush saw his pick for Defense secretary as a chance to prove his father wrong about Rumsfeld, whom the first President Bush believed to be arrogant and Machiavellian. And the current president once blurted out that a reason for removing Saddam Hussein was that Saddam had tried to kill his father.

Though Freudian analysis is fraught and ultimately unprovable territory, this much is for sure: The senior President Bush understood the potential pitfalls in Iraq. In a 1998 book he co-authored, he wrote of his decision after the 1991 Gulf War not to invade Iraq after repelling it from Kuwait. "Trying to eliminate Saddam ... would have incurred incalculable human and political costs. ... We would have been forced to occupy Baghdad and, in effect, rule Iraq ... there was no viable 'exit strategy' we could see."

When they elected George W. Bush in 2000, many voters assumed he would carry on his father's pragmatic foreign policy. Instead, he embraced the neoconservatives' risky strategy to reorder the Middle East. As the present quagmire shows, when it came to Iraq, father knew best. Bush presumably knows that by now, but it may be too late.

Read the rest at USA Today