Today is our 4,678th 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: 2,337
Other Military Deaths - Afghanistan: 1,125
We find this morning's cost of war
passing through: $ 1, 553, 033, 350, 000 .00
So, we'll dive right in. The big news yesterday was that Congress finally did something.
After six weeks of contentious, closed-door negotiations, the House and Senate have reached a deal to overhaul the Veterans Affairs (VA) health care system — just in time for senators to vote on a bill before they leave Washington for a monthlong break.
The compromise bill will include $17 billion in spending, with $12 billion of that as entirely new funding. Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Jeff Miller, Democratic and Republican chairmen of the Senate and House Veterans Affairs Committees, respectively, worked through the weekend to come to an agreement.
The bipartisan deal, which Sanders and Miller unveiled at a press conference Monday, will include both long- and short-term fixes aimed at making VA “more accountable and to help the department recruit more doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals,” according to a release from Sanders and Miller. The bill will also make it easier and faster to fire or demote VA employees, although there will be a 21-day window to review appeals.
The compromise, Sanders said, “makes certain that we address the immediate crisis of veterans being forced onto long waiting lines for health care.” Five-billion dollars of the measure will go toward leasing 27 new VA facilities in 18 states and Puerto Rico and be used to hire more doctors and nurses. Whistle-blowers and internal VA investigations have both cited staffing shortages as a reason for notoriously long waits for appointments, an issue at the heart of the current VA scandals.
Investigations in recent months have also uncovered widespread misconduct throughout the department’s health care system, and the agreement comes after hard-fought negotiations for an overhaul that would address major problems in the system. According to one report from a retired Phoenix VA system doctor, more than 40 veterans died while waiting for appointments. A review of the Phoenix system found that 1,700 veterans were waiting for care but had never been added to any official waiting list.
The largest portion of the proposal’s funding will go toward creating a way for veterans to get care through private health care providers if there are long waits for appointments, or if they live more than 40 miles from VA medical facilities. While there is some support from veterans groups for opening up private options, others argue the answer still lies in fully investing in the VA system.
Sanders, a Democrat, has staunchly supported an increase in VA funding, and he excoriated Republican senators in February for blocking a bill aimed at improving benefits for veterans. In a statement Thursday about a potential bill, Sanders said that, while it would represent a compromise, “What it does not concede is that the cost of war is expensive and the cost of war does not end when the last shots are fired and the last missiles are launched. The cost of war continues until the last veteran receives the care and benefits that he or she has earned on the battlefield.”
I suppose it's more a symptom of our government dysfunction, but I saw a number of outlets reporting this as "rare" and "unusual" that there would be any motion on legislation at all. It's something papa TriSec once said - once elected, a politician's sole mission is to stay in office. If they accidentally do something along the way that actually benefits someone other than themselves...but I digress.
Of course, we seem hell-bent on making even more veterans, even as we glacially move towards the final pullout date. But not in Afghanistan. Back in May, the government of Iraq called for us to help them with airstrikes. Of course, we've never seen a target we didn't like, so there has been some behind-the-scenes work to "provide all options to the President
The U.S. is still considering a request from the Iraqi government for airstrikes against Sunni militants in Iraq, a senior State Department official told lawmakers.
The Islamic State, a group inspired by al-Qaida, has taken over a large swath of northern Iraq since June 10, when Iraqi troops and police officers in Mosul were routed by a much smaller enemy force. The group also controls territory in western Iraq and eastern Syria.
In May, the Iraqi government asked the U.S. to launch airstrikes against the Islamic State, but at the time, the U.S. did not have enough intelligence to do so, said Brett McGurk, deputy assistant secretary of state for Iraq and Iran.
“It was very difficult for us to know specifically what was happening,” McGurk told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday. “It was very difficult for us to know the extent of [the Islamic State’s] advance southward down the Tigris River Valley, which is why in a ... meeting with the president in the earliest hours of this crisis, the decision was made immediately to significantly surge U.S. air assets over the skies of Iraq, again, to go from one [flight] a month to 50 a day, including manned aircraft.”
The U.S. now has much better intelligence on the Islamic State, which will help inform President Obama as he decides whether to take military action against the militants, McGurk said.
“The options that are being developed for the president will be much more concrete and specific than anything we could have had before,” he said. “There’s a significant risk ... of taking any military action without that level of granularity.”
Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., asked McGurk why the Obama administration turned down the Iraqi government’s request for airstrikes in May.
McGurk said that was not the case, and in fact the request “is still under active consideration. There’s never been a denial.”
However, the Iraqi ambassador to the U.S. recently called for immediate airstrikes against the Islamic State, which was formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
Speaking at the Atlantic Council on July 21, Lukman Faily urged the U.S. “to conduct counter-terrorism operations in urban areas occupied by ISIL ... we need precision U.S. air attacks,” and added: “The U.S. should offer air support targeting terrorist camps and supply convoys in remote areas.”
But given the balkanization of Iraq
, it's going to be difficult to know which one to attack. While we've only been there since 1991, wars in that region have been going on since Mohammed was around, since about 800 AD or so. We're only the latest outsider to be bewildered by the divisions.
Ever since U.S. forces invaded Iraq and toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, the U.S. government has worried that Iraq would splinter into three states — each representing the feuding religious and ethnic factions the dictator held together through his iron rule.
It may no longer be necessary to worry that Iraq will break apart. In many ways, it already has.
The radical Islamic State that seized a swath of western and central Iraq last month effectively left the nation in three pieces, government officials and analysts say.
The United States worries that a fractured Iraq could lead to a failed state, allowing the radical Islamists to establish a stronghold from which they can export terrorism to other parts of the region and world.
Ryan Crocker, who served as U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2007 to 2009, described the divisions as "Shiastan," "Jihadistan" and Kurdistan. The references are to the majority Shiite Muslims, who run the national government in Baghdad; the insurgent Sunni Muslim jihadists who make up the Islamic State; and the ethnic Kurds, who have long presided over an oil-rich, semiautonomous enclave in the north
"In a sense, it's apocalypse now," Crocker said.
"Iraq is not one Iraq anymore," Fuad Hussein, chief of staff to Kurdistan Regional Government President Massoud Barzani, said at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy during a recent U.S. visit.
The challenge for Washington is determining whether — and how — the country can be pieced back together. The Obama administration says Iraq must stay united if it is to take back the country from the radical Islamists.
Ironically, Joe Biden had argued as a U.S. senator in 2006, when Iraq was in the throes of sectarian violence, that the country be divided into three autonomous regions with a weak central government . His idea never gained traction, and the administration in which he serves as vice president argues the opposite view.
"The strongest single blunt to that threat (division) would be a strong capable federal government in Iraq that is actually able to exert control and influence to push back on that threat," Elissa Slotkin, a top Pentagon official, testified to Congress recently.
Politicians in Baghdad are haggling over formation of a unity government that can fulfill the mission outlined by Slotkin. By custom, the top three jobs are parceled out to the three factions.
I was just pondering this morning...perhaps this is the start of those "end times" that our Christian friends are always crowing about. While it's not a world war in the traditional sense, if you take a look around our humble earth, there's more places fighting today than not; and it sure feels like it's one step short of another global conflict.