Saturday, June 25, 2011

Draw down in Afghanistan?

I'll admit it -- a portion of me wanted President Obama to just look at this war, say good-bye, pull the funds, turn out the lights and close the door. We are spending billions of our scarce dollars a day in this far-off country. The cumulative costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has been reported to be at about one trillion dollars -- most of it spent before President Obama was elected. Remember under Bush, we lowered taxes and built tanks. We had our war without body armor in the field and with butter and guns at home. While the death of bin Laden has not immediately caused the demise of al Qaeda, it has certainly made it less virulent. The Taliban appears to be on the run from our drone attacks in Pakistan, despite the protection from some members of the Pakistan army and the blustering by the cabinet members. Although there is a summer offensive in Afghanistan, it appears to be concentrated in guerrilla activities such as car bombs, I.E.D.s, and suicide missions. The civilian death toll is rising from attacks in public places.

So it appears that there are many caveats in this discussion. I believe we need to bring our troops home and let the Afghanis start fixing their country with the blood, sweat and toil of their own people. Should we leave forces in place to lead humanitarian efforts? Perhaps, yes, if we could guarantee their safety. Others report that there will be an international competition for the mineral resources thought to be hidden under the mountains and valleys of this remote country. So we should probably not leave a financial or legal vacuum, which might allow others to enter and plunder the slight resources of this beautiful place. Frequent reports mention the incredible corruption in Afghanistan; discuss the mood swings of the mercurial President and the drug running of his family members and friends. The coalition Army reports training substantial numbers of police forces who will be slotted to take over the security of the country. It is said that there are over 300,000 in place now. What is not reported is the reality that many of them are illiterate. While they are fearless fighters and brave men, they are not ready to run the country in an organized manner.

Attempts to teach farmers to grow food crops instead of poppies have not been successful as the Taliban and the war lords were both maintaining the drug distribution lines. Opium and hashish bring in much more money than wheat crops, so the country cannot feed itself and has no real export economy. With no economic products and balances of trade, the presence of the war machinery provides the cash which keeps the country running. Recently, over $14 billion directed toward contracting costs has been thought to have been widely misused, partly due to the costs of doing business in this country. The elections held over the last year or so were widely found to be rigged and cronies of President Hamid Karzai eventually won out in most contested races. Only this week the Afghan Court declared that one-quarter of the officials elected in the last election were chosen fraudulently. Other reports mention the schools built by Americans or UN forces are being destroyed by the Taliban. Schools that taught girls were particularly targeted. An educated electorate is probably contrary to the aims of the Taliban. Reports last year also indicated that Karzai was supporting rollbacks of the limited freedoms recently granted to Afghani women. Many women returned to the burqa in an attempt to keep their freedom to move around in public. Reports from the United Nations last year on the disintegrating status of women (IRIN) have noted the following dismal facts:
  • Every 30 minutes an Afghan woman dies in childbirth
  • 87 % of Afghan women are illiterate
  • Only 30% of girls have access to education today in Afghanistan
  • 1 in every 3 Afghan women has experienced physical, psychological or sexual violence
  • More than 1.25 million Afghani women are widowed and have no means of support
  • The average life expectancy for women in Afghanistan is only 44 years
  • Even today 70-80 % of women are forced into arranged marriages
  • Close to 60% are forced into marriage before the legal age of 16
Many women around the world had supported the UN and American presence in Afghanistan because they believed that the medieval reign of the Taliban was being overturned and ending the war against women was part of the coalition effort. However, given the facts noted above, unless and until the power of the Taliban is thoroughly broken, and the support for women’s rights from the elected government is strong, an American pull out will allow a return to more repression against women. The Taliban, mostly driven from their territory now and hiding in the mountains or in the Pakistani territories, have given no hint that they are willing to change their goals or allow women greater freedom. Can we permit a situation which might return this backward group again to a state of powerful and reprehensible reign? Both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former First Lady Laura Bush have advocated for protections for the women of Afghan and the need to ensure that these safeguards continue. Hopefully these prominent voices will help those mostly unseen women in Afghanistan.

So what should the United States do? Should the President have announced a draw down of more than 30,000 troops over the next year or so? (This reduction leaves more than 65,000 troops still on the ground and expected to be withdrawn gradually by 2014. Iraq has already drawn down and has a support mission with assigned troops due to leave in December.) More than 4500 troops have been killed in Iraq since 2003, in Afghanistan more than 1500 have died since 2001. The way I look at it, no one wants to be the last to die in this war. I do not believe that this country needs to fight a war in each generation. Frequently I travel in the community near Walter Reed Army Hospital. I see the young people on crutches or in wheelchairs, missing limbs or with the vacant looks of those with PTSD. One more injured soldier is also one more too many. Has the mission changed? Is it narrowing and becoming more limited? I would hope so.

Our country has suffered economically the last few years, but the war budgets keep increasing. It is time to turn about and move toward fixing the needs at home now. The cost of the war effort is taking money which is needed to repair cities and towns which have been so impacted by the downturn. The national conference of mayors, meeting this month in Baltimore, has called for a diversion of funds to be instead, used at home to repair our infrastructure instead of that in a country so far away. Some Democratic members of Congress have chided the President for this decision to decrease the military presence more slowly. But given the information presented above, I believe we need to have a gradual removal of troops, so consequently, but reluctantly. Because I cannot come up with a better idea, I support the President in this effort.

Let me know your thoughts -- pro or con -- as long as you tell me your name and email. What should the US do?

Monday, June 20, 2011

There is so much ugliness in the news recently, so many men behaving badly, so many governments around the world shooting and killing their own people that I decided to write about some of the more beautiful things in my world.

Right now, in Maryland we are in the lushness of a waning Spring, which was somewhat tentative this year. As I drive on the country roads in the upper parts of Montgomery County where I live, I can now enjoy the "tiger lilies" dotting the roadside. These perky orange lilies grow wild alongside the country roads where the rural atmosphere prevails.

You know, those narrow roads, sometimes classified rustic, where there is little or no shoulder and the tree canopy creates an umbrella across the roadways -- these are the kinds of roads I mean. I have heard that some want to trim the trees, reduce the canopy, flatten out the road edges -- but I say no, not now, not ever. This is part of the rural heritage the county has worked so hard to protect and preserve. If one looks closely, one can not the many shades of green, from the deep forest green of the evergreen trees, the spruce and the pine, to the fragile green of the younger trees and the mature green of the stately oak. Together, against a forest backdrop they create a wonderful palette of colors.

I see the yellow fields of wheat softly waving in the warm breezes, the low green leaves of soybeans and the newly planted corn growing straight and soon to be tall. Farms showcase sheep and bleating lambs, cows with nursing calves, graceful horses grazing or trotting across the grassy meadows come into my view as I drive along. Still I also see deer, fox and raccoons -- driven out of their natural forests, and now inhabiting my suburban village. I hear that the so-called protected lanes of the ICC have been breached by some unfortunately adventurous deer. We are not yet good neighbors to all of our wild, or even, domesticated creatures. (Although I do agree that we have far too many deer -- but that is a subject for another day.)

On Facebook I saw a cute video of some of Montgomery County Police attempting to catch an apparently domesticated goat which was playing in traffic near the MVA in Gaithersburg -- but it got away -- and I hope it found safer pasture somewhere! Kudos to our officers in blue for a good hearted effort!

Roses have been beautiful this year. As I walk among neighborhoods in and around my community, I see terrace and trellis trailing brightly colored roses. Daylilies with their yellow and variegated flowers compliment the roses. Butterfly bushes attract many types of multi-colored butterflies with their fragrant aromas. The gardens are at that interim and wonderful state, blooming but not yet needing weeding.

We have already seen temperatures over 100 degrees this season even before summer is officially here, but this week has been wonderful. Temperatures in the mid 70s, little or no humidity, and sunny skies welcomed us after some thunderstorms blew through over the last few days. However our longest daylight hours are around the corner of this week -- the fireflies will flicker and flitter through the evenings and the summer stars will loom larger. I am hopeful that we all can enjoy cooler, yet pleasant, evening strolls, enjoying natural vistas and fragrant scenes.

Let me hear what good news you might wish to share.