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Editorial: Bennington Banner, Feb. 19, 2008

Anyone who thinks that war will not be a significant issue in the fall campaign for president is not paying close attention to the news. Though Iraq has become more quiescent because of the increase in U.S. troops known as "the surge," the political progress necessary for a hopeful future as a united nation has not been made — and shows no sign that it will be made.

Moreover, not only has violence against U.S. troops been creeping back up in that country, there is evidence that both the Sunnis and the Shiites are taking advantage of the relative lull in violence to gear up for a renewed civil war.

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain may talk serenely about the U.S. staying in Iraq for 100 years — as if our military may never be needed anywhere else — but reality is intervening. Afghanistan is steadily moving toward crisis, with the most recent evidence of this the killing on Sunday and Monday of 140 people there in two suicide bombings, the country's deadliest violence since the U.S. and its Afghan allies ousted the Taliban in 2001.

But the deterioration of Afghanistan over the last several years has not registered in our national debate to this point. Almost a year ago, the non-partisan bipartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies wrote, "Restoring progress in Af-ghanistan requires dramatic changes. If a critical mass of Afghans experience positive change, the negative trends are reversible. The year 2007 is the breaking point."

Needless to say, not much has changed in the 11 months since that report. U.S. resources and attention are focused on and tied up in Iraq. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said recently that the number of U.S. troops in Iraq will not be decreased below "pre-surge" levels. And there are ongoing indications of severe stress on our military. As the Associated Press reported Monday, "After more than seven years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Air Force's aging jet fighters, bombers, cargo aircraft and gunships are at the breaking point, they say, and expensive, ultramodern replacements are needed fast."

Most worrisome is that the reduction in violence in Iraq has been counterbalanced by an increase in violence in Afghanistan. U.S. military deaths, suicide bombings and opium production hit record highs there in 2007. The Taliban killed more than 925 Afghan police, and large sections of the country remain outside government control. And this six years after the U.S. justly invaded the country to oust the Taliban and destroy the al-Qaida terrorists that committed mass murder on our soil.

We cannot depend on any allies to pick up the slack. The "coalition of the willing" has dwindled to almost nothing in Iraq, and NATO countries are balking at sending more troops into Afghanistan as conditions worsen. The recent deployment of a few thousand more American troops to Afghanistan is far from adequate.

Whether or not the U.S. is ultimately successful in Afghanistan depends on whether or not it stays bogged down in Iraq. Our resources are not infinite, and it's increasingly obvious that something has to change. Our priorities in our two ongoing wars need to be clearly and comprehensively addressed by the presidential candidates. Choices have to be made.

Should we continue to occupy a nation, Iraq, we should not have invaded in the first place, keeping the peace between rival ethnic groups who give no sign of ever being able to work together? Or should we pursue a sensible withdrawal which will not only free up troops and resources to stabilize Afghanistan but also reduce the strain on our military?

For the presidential candidates to focus on the domestic economy while only offering boilerplate statements on Iraq and Afghanistan would be a great disservice to the nation. Events on the ground may well bring home before the general election the urgent need to end our fixation on Iraq and reorder our national priorities.


Issues & Opinions

Mark Rondeau - Writer, Editor, Photographer