As Americans focus on the presidential election and growing economic problems at home, George Bush's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan seem to be slipping ever further from public attention as they are bumped off the front page by more immediate concerns. While the White House and its allies are eager to claim that the president's troop escalation 12 months ago is responsible for the falling number of U.S. casualties - and the concomitant reduction in scrutiny - the reality is that violence had already begun to diminish when the so-called "surge" was implemented, and it remains largely irrelevant to both the diminishing number of killed and wounded, and as importantly, to the rebuilding of Iraq as a nation. The escalation's stated end-goal of political reconciliation is no closer than it was last year - witness, for instance, the stalled Iraqi oil law negotiations - and there is dubious connection between the presence of more American forces and diminished mayhem.
While the deployment of additional U.S. troops has provided some level of increased security in the areas in which they serve - notably Baghdad - it must also be remarked that sectarian violence had raged in Iraq for the better part of the three years before additional forces arrived. Whole neighborhoods have now been "cleansed" of Sunnis, while others have been denuded of Shia, and the resulting segregation is a major contributor to the relative calm that Iraq has enjoyed for the past several months, at least with regard to American dead. (See chart above.)
The more effective - at least temporarily, anyway - tactic to be employed has been the purchase of good will. Payments are being made by U.S. forces directly to paramilitary groups and militia in return for their pledges not to attack, but this is cleary unsustainable in the long run. In any case, this brief respite from death and destruction is likely to be temporary. Not only is the United States military stretched so desperately thin that troops need to brought home as soon as possible, but similar lulls have occurred in the past, and January has already brought an uptick in violence.
Perhaps even more alarming however, is the fact that Afghanistan - America's forgotten war - appears to be slowly disintegrating. According to a report from the Afghanistan Study Group, more manpower is badly needed in that country, and it is in danger of becoming a failed state in the face of a resurgent Taliban. Given the current exhaustion of U.S. military resources, from where that manpower will come is anyone's guess.
As these pressures come to bear on the national conscience, it's to some degree possible to forgive Americans for growing weary of our adventurism in the Persian Gulf and Central Asia. It is unconscionable, however, that we, as a nation, are dealing with that fatigue not by ending the wars, but by ignoring them. While nearly 65% of the public is against the war in Iraq, "feeble" would be a charitable description of efforts in the capital to bring the troops home, as well as the pressure applied by constituencies to their representatives in Washington. Certainly, the election and the economy loom as immediate issues for most people, but it is a moral imperative that we remember the men and women we have sent overseas and into harm's way. Like the Iraqis, they're still dying.
Last month, talkshow host Montel Williams was on the egregious Fox & Friends morning show, ostensibly to pontificate into the echo chamber on the tragedy of the accidental overdose death of actor Heath Ledger. Mr. Williams - himself a navy veteran - instead chose to use this bully pulpit to point out that, while Mr. Ledger's death was tragic, it was no more so than those of the 28 U.S. troops killed in Iraq since the beginning of 2008, and that the names of these men and women who died in service had gone unreported. After being cut off to go to commercial by one of the Fox & Friends anchors, Mr. Williams did not return to the show, and four days later - after 17 years as a host - he lost his job.