March 12, 2009 – While they see President Obama’s 18-month timetable to remove U.S. troops from Iraq as a necessary first step to change, veterans’ organizations say Iraq and Afghanistan urgently need diplomacy and development, not lingering deployments or troop surges.
The president’s timetable, announced late last month, calls for ending the combat mission in Iraq by the end of August 2010, leaving a “transitional force” of up to 50,000 troops there before all U.S. troops are removed by the end of 2011, as well as increasing diplomacy and civilian aid.
“After six years of failure by the Bush administration, we are relieved to see President Obama announce a reasonable plan for withdrawal from a clearly lost war that should never have been fought,” Paul Sullivan, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense, said in a telephone interview.
“But,” he added, “we are disappointed at the possibility of escalated violence in Afghanistan. We would hope that the president has a long-term plan to end the bloodshed there, with an economic and political solution involving neighboring countries.”
In a statement, Iraq Veterans against the War said it is “pleased that President Obama is taking important steps to bring our fellow service members home.”
But, IVAW said, the administration’s plans to remove combat troops slowly over 18 months and to leave up to 50,000 soldiers there through 2011 “is a plan for almost three more years of an unjustified military occupation that continues to claim the lives and livelihoods of our troops and innocent Iraqis.”
IVAW president Kelly Dougherty said the sovereignty of the Iraqi people over their country needs to be ensured by withdrawing all military personnel and defense contractors, closing all military bases and removing U.S. interests that seek to control the country’s oil resources.
What the Iraqi people need is diplomatic and non-military support as they seek to rebuild their country, Veterans for Peace executive director Michael McPhearson told the World.
“We invaded Iraq for no good reason, we set up a government, and now we’re claiming we’re staying to help that government continue,” he said. “Somehow that seems to me as if we are not letting people make their own decisions about how to run their country.
“It doesn’t live up to our principles,” he added.
McPhearson said the administration’s comprehensive review of policy and the appointment of an experienced and respected diplomat as special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan shows “they are at least taking diplomacy more seriously than the previous administration.”
But, he added, controlling the country militarily is impossible.
“So we’re really just sending more troops into harm’s way that we shouldn’t be, and instead of escalating this we need to bring it down and try once again to use diplomacy with various parties, not just the U.S., and development and social influence.”
Talking with less extreme elements among the Taliban could help move Afghanistan towards better human and civil rights, he said.
Veterans for Peace also warns that keeping troops in Iraq and increasing troops in Afghanistan will affect Obama’s plans to overcome the deepening economic crisis in the same way the Vietnam War devastated President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society proposals.
As he was laying out plans to withdraw from Iraq, Obama was also outlining a proposed budget with significant increases in funding for veterans’ services, including boosting funds for health care, including “veteran-oriented specialty care” in prosthetics, vision, spinal cord injury and women’s health.”
Mental health services, and services to veterans living in rural areas, are also slated to increase, as are GI Bill funds for veterans’ education.
“As veterans come home from Iraq and Afghanistan to the worst economy in decades, we need to show real support for our troops and veterans,” Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said in a statement.
With the proposed $25 billion increase in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) budget as well as plans for expansion of care and renewed focus on mental health care, Rieckhoff said, Obama “seems to have put his money where his mouth is.”
He added, “The devil is in the details. We must ensure that this budget does not rest on increased co-pays, premiums and fees for veterans.”
Noting that the VA is now treating some 400,000 patients, Sullivan said Veterans for Common Sense estimates that “former President Bush’s bloody Baghdad blunder will result in 1 million new VA patients from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars by 2013.
“We may have some disagreements with President Obama from time to time, but let’s put this in perspective. We are emerging from very troubled times.”
Sullivan said his organization supports Sen. Patrick Leahy’s call for a truth commission to investigate the Bush administration’s national security policies, and believes veterans’ participation is vital to give credibility to such a commission’s work.