Today is our 4,594th day in Afghanistan.
We'll start this morning as we always do; with the latest casualty figures from our ongoing war, courtesy of Antiwar.com:
US Military Deaths - Afghanistan: 2,319
Other Military Deaths - Afghanistan: 1,119
We find this morning's cost of war
passing through: $ 1, 531, 784, 700, 000 .00
"Ask a Vet" hasn't been there in a while, but we're going to spend some time in Iraq today. Have you been following the news over the last few weeks? It's as violent and dangerous in Baghdad as it's ever been.
Iraq’s worst surge in sectarian violence since 2008, fueled by protracted political disputes, makes the first parliamentary election since the U.S.-led occupation anything but promising.
Over the last year, Islamic militants have targeted officials from the Shiite Muslim-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is poised to win a third term in Wednesday’s balloting. In turn, government security forces have struck back.
The United Nations says at least 8,868 people, 88 percent of them civilians, were killed in 2013, the highest toll in five years. The pace has continued in the first two months of this year, when about 1,400 were killed in attacks that have occurred nearly on a daily basis.
One attack killed 28 when the Islamic State of the Iraq and Syria, a Sunni Muslim militant group that is loyal to al-Qaida detonated two bombs on April 25 at a political rally staged by the Sadiqun bloc, the political wing of the Shiite Asaib Ahel al-Haq, or League of the Righteous.
Fears abound that violence will overshadow the election and plunge Iraq into the kind of violence typical of 2006-08, when U.S. troops were still confronting militants.
That civil strife came after the Sunni Arab minority had boycotted the 2005 election, the first after the fall of Sunni autocrat Saddam Hussein two years earlier. When a Shiite-dominated government assumed power, many Sunni dissidents formed the main part of the insurgency.
The violence led then-President George W. Bush to send more than 20,000 additional U.S. troops to Iraq, beginning in 2007. The so-called surge strategy was generally seen as successful in reducing sectarian violence.
Although violence continued to mar the next election, in 2010, voter turnout reached 62 percent. The poll was hailed by President Barack Obama, who at the time said that “the future of Iraq belongs to the people of Iraq.”
Analysts expect far less from this election, in which more than 9,000 candidates will compete for 328 seats in parliament.
“Unfortunately things are worse than in 2010,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow with the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence and director of research for the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution.
“Back then, there was a sense of national cohesion after the success of the surge — even if it was difficult to get through the (political) process itself,” he said. “Today, I am reminded more of how things felt in 2005, which is, of course, very unsettling.”
But of course, the real reason for the uptick in violence was the elections held across the country last week
. I imagine this is where the disconnect occured way back when - elections mean power and influence, and whether everyone wants a piece of the pie, or some groups fear losing what power they have, just contributes to the general violence of the event.
BAGHDAD — Blast barrier walls topped with barbed wire snake across the Iraqi capital, encircling government buildings like a fortress and enshrining the separation of neighborhoods increasingly divided by religious sect. Soldiers and policemen brandishing assault rifles and machine guns man checkpoints, partially hidden behind sandbags or staring down from the roofs of Humvees.
As parliamentary elections are held this week more than two years after the withdrawal of U.S. troops, Baghdad is once again a city gripped by fear and scarred by violence. Many of the city's 7 million residents avoid roads hit by bombings, fearing a deadly repeat. Most shops now close shortly after sunset, and an overnight curfew that begins at midnight remains in force.
On Monday, suspected Sunni militants struck checkpoints outside polling stations across Baghdad and much of the country, as army and police personnel voted two days before the rest of Iraq's 22 million registered voters cast their ballots on Wednesday. At least 21 people were killed in the suicide bombings and other attacks.
Despite a surge in violence engulfing the country over the past year, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's election coalition is expected to win and propel him to a third, four-year term in office. Al-Maliki's campaign has cast him as a strong statesman who has kept the country together through tough times, a view rejected by many Sunnis who see him as a sectarian politician determined to marginalize their once-dominant sect.
An al-Qaida breakaway group, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, is challenging the authority of the Shiite-led government, waging a campaign of terror on ordinary Shiites in Baghdad and elsewhere. The Sunni militants also control parts of the vast Anbar province west of Baghdad and maintain a heavy presence in the north and northeast of the country. Their campaign is fueled by the frustration felt by many Sunni Arabs that they are now being denied government jobs slotted for less qualified Shiites.
Baghdad's division along sectarian lines, a legacy of the last decade's Sunni-Shiite bloodletting, is now deeply enshrined and, to hardliners on both sides, is how things should be. Most of the hundreds of thousands of mostly Sunni Baghdadis who fled the capital have yet to come back, finding relative peace abroad in Arab cities like Amman, Dubai and Beirut.
A flood of migrants from the impoverished and mainly Shiite south of the country has altered Baghdad's demographics. Many Sunnis now complain that what was once a diverse city with entrenched values of religious tolerance is now predominantly Shiite. Mixed neighborhoods are disappearing, and where they do still exist, minority residents complain of harassment and intimidation. Interfaith marriages are now rare among poor Shiites and Sunnis.
Some of the campaign posters for Wednesday's parliamentary election are promising better days for the city - jobs, security and an end to graft. But many residents don't believe such promises, instead distrusting politicians as corrupt or inept.
"It is only now that it is election season that we hear from politicians," said Zeid Ibrahim Ahmed, a 47-year-old Sunni barber from Baghdad's mostly Sunni Azamiyah neighborhood. "But for four years they failed to do anything useful. The only change we might see in Iraq after the election is that we will move from bad to worse."
Of course, we do have a story from Afghanistan this morning. As we edge ever closer to our last 'official' day there, one has to wonder if we learned any lessons at all from Iraq. Our leaving, and the transition to whatever kind of postwar society is going to happen if Afghanistan will still be faced with one of the longest-running problems in that region.
MARJAH, Afghanistan — Pink-and-white poppy blooms stretch toward the horizon in this field in southern Afghanistan as laborers slice open the green bulbs swollen with raw opium, the main ingredient in heroin.
The opium from Marjah, a district in southern Helmand province, likely will make its way to drug addicts in the region and the world. Helmand's harvest this year is expected to be one of the largest ever, mirroring trends in the rest of Afghanistan.
This year's bumper crop, after the U.S. has spent $7.5 billion trying to eradicate opium in Afghanistan, represents one of the most tangible and visible failures as the American-led military force prepares to withdraw by the end of this year. And with Afghanistan's emerging anti-narcotics forces vastly outnumbered both by Taliban brokers and corrupt officials involved in the trade, the opium trade likely will only grow.
"Poppy is like a virus that is already embedded in a sick body," said Ashita Mittal, acting country director for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Kabul. "It is going to impact the whole economy of this country. We do believe that in the absence of the growth of the licit economy, the illicit economy will take over."
Last year, 209,000 hectares (806 square miles) of poppy were planted across Afghanistan, up 36 percent over the year before and producing an estimated 5,500 metric tons (6,062 tons) of opium, according to the U.N. drug agency. By comparison, only a little over 7,000 hectares (27 square miles) of poppy field were eradicated.
The 2014 harvest is expected to match or even exceed last year's record. In coming years, opium will grab an even larger share of Afghanistan's already troubled economy, as money from U.S. military contracts and aid work dries up. The U.N. estimates that some 200,000 families in Afghanistan are involved in opium production already and that the country has some 1 million addicts.
As a share of Afghanistan's economy, opium looms large: The U.N. estimates the potential gross value of Afghan opiates last year was around $3 billion — equal to 15 percent of the country's gross domestic product.
Throughout the U.S.-led mission in Afghanistan, it has worked with Afghan forces to try to eradicate opium — a major source of funding for the Taliban insurgency. At first, that meant hacking down and burning fields, though later troops sought to persuade farmers to plant alternative crops. A report to U.S. Congress this week by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction said Washington has spent $7.5 billion on the effort. For a few years, opium production dropped, but as the NATO withdrawal looms, more farmers are turning back to poppies.
For Marjah farmer Mohammad Ayub, the choice is easy. Opium poppies are easier to grow than other crops, they are easy to convert into quick cash and far more profitable. He says he can earn 80,000 Afghanis ($7,000) growing poppies for opium on his land, while he can barely break even planting cotton.
"Opium has a good income, and that is why people are cultivating it with all its problems," Ayub said. "We are not scared from the government, because most of the officials have their share in the harvesting."
One can only wonder what the final accounting is going to read in both places. We know how Germany and Japan turned out....but that's mostly because of the Marshall Plan. Of course no such thing occurred after our last round of war.