February 22, 2007

Slowly Starving the Fertile Crescent

Despite - or perhaps because of - it's vast oil wealth, Iraq has historically been a net food importer, cultivating only fifty to sixty percent of its arable land. While human rights abuses and smaller scale turmoil over the past several decades resulted in periodic displacement for portions of the population, income from petroleum - through either open trade or the now-infamous United Nations Oil for Food Program - ensured that famine was not a national concern.

As domestic security in the wake of the U.S. invasion has worsened however, supplying food to the Iraqi population has become increasingly difficult. The situation has been exacerbated by an explosion in the number of refugees within the country's borders, and growing numbers of Iraqis have been forced to rely on not just increasingly expensive imported food, but on food aid, as well. The International Organization for Migration in Iraq (IOM Iraq) reports that there are now more than 1.5 million displaced people in Iraq- a number significantly higher than all of the people living in the state of Idaho - and that as much as 40% of the entire population is dependent on such assistance for survival.

With former Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) head Paul Bremer's partially-implemented free market reforms, reported overall economic expansion in Iraq has ballooned, with the Al Hayat newspaper touting a torrid rate as high as 28.4% in 2005. While there are unquestionably new businesses and legitimate growth in parts of the country - notably the Kurdish controlled north - little of it is focused on the production of food, and a large number of small farmers have gone bankrupt, unable to compete against newly tariff-free competition from large multinational companies. Today, the vast majority of privately sold consumables came from the $4 billion dollars in imports that entered Iraq last year, and there are virtually no exports whatsoever.

Meanwhile, in Baghdad and surrounding provinces - the heart of the fight for control of Iraq -the food supply situation is on the verge of becoming dire. While food in aid shipments is often of lower quality, the government has also been forced to destroy or reject millions of tons of it because of contamination and spoilage. Compounding that problem, the few local farmers who are still working are hindered from bringing their goods to market by the scarcity of gasoline and the high level of sectarian violence; add in burgeoning inflation that makes imports prohibitively expensive, and significant portions of Iraq are finding it harder to feed themselves week by week. As a representative from Iraq's Ministry of Agriculture explains:
Local agricultural production is almost nil. The limited loans given by the ministry to farmers and planters are misused simply because it is not possible to maintain the agriculture production for reasons well known to everybody here. Now the private sector is importing everything, and the prices are too high to afford.
The net effect of this and other hardships is that Iraqis are giving louder voice to a longing for the days of Saddam. Few things make people long for even oppressive rulers like empty stomachs, the sporadic availability of electricity, and fear of death on a daily basis:
"I was so happy when my salary was increased to around 300 dollars, but I now wish for the times when it was 30 dollars as it used to be before this occupation," engineer Kamil Fattah from the Ministry of Industry told IPS. "Inflation in the Iraqi market has made it impossible for us to eat decently while earlier we used to get every basic need for almost free of charge."
As President Reagan's Director of the NSA, Lieutenant General William Odom, told professional Bush apologist Hugh Hewitt in a recent interview (and wrote eloquently in wrote in a Washington Post op-ed entitled "Victory is Not an Option"), "It doesn’t matter how bad it gets, it’s not going to get better by us staying there." The United States simply does not have the manpower to subdue the violence in Iraq and meet the nation's humanitarian needs, and we need to come to terms with that fact.

The lives that have been lost cannot be reclaimed; the maimed cannot be made whole; and the worst crime of all would be to sacrifice more men and women to this lost cause. Withdrawing U.S. troops will undoubtedly result in additional violence, but it is violence that will take place either in a relatively short, sharp, shock, or in a long, slow boil that claims additional American lives. The former will at least allow NGO's to return relatively quickly to provide aid and help Iraq get back on its feet.

We as a nation are responsible for creating this no-win set of alternatives, and it is our fault that the consequences will be born by a country we have turned into a collection of victims. Nonetheless, the time for dithering and half measures is over; it is time to pick the less appalling of our options. It is time to begin withdrawing our armed forces from Iraq.

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