Still Not Home for the Holidays

While most of the rest of us celebrate the holidays with family and friends, several hundred thousand U.S. troops will – once again – be separated from their loved ones. Currently, there are some 117,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and another 68,000 in Afghanistan, with another 30,000 to be deployed "in the first part of 2010 at the fastest pace possible," according to President Obama.

Obama has set August 2010 as the date for withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq. But that withdrawal will not be complete; 30,000 to 50,000 U.S. troops will remain in Iraq (not an insubstantial force) "to carry out three distinct functions: training, equipping, and advising Iraqi Security Forces as long as they remain non-sectarian; conducting targeted counter-terrorism missions; and protecting our ongoing civilian and military efforts within Iraq." So those troops will still not be home for the holidays in 2010. The status of forces agreement with the Iraqi government stipulates complete removal of U.S. forces by the end of 2011. Of course, anything can happen between now and then, so no one should be surprised if the 2010 and 2011 deadlines are not met – especially if the security situation deteriorates in Iraq and the Iraqi government changes its mind and asks us to stay.

In announcing the increase of 30,000 troops in Afghanistan, President Obama also said that "after 18 months, our troops will begin to come home." So nearly 100,000 U.S. military personnel will not be home for the holidays for at least another year. And the operative phrase is "will begin to come home." Realistically, if U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan begins in July 2011, they won’t all be home for another 12-18 months – so it’s likely that a good number of troops will miss the 2012 holidays. (As an aside, if the president had instead decided to begin withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan beginning January, they could all be home for the 2010 holidays assuming removing two brigades – about 7,000 troops – per month.)

But Iraq and Afghanistan are not the only reasons why U.S. troops are not home for the holidays. As of June 2008, there were another 130,000-150,000 U.S. troops deployed in other places around the world. In fact, even before Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), the United States routinely deployed more than 130,000 troops worldwide (there are more than 190 countries in the world, and the U.S. military is deployed in some fashion in more than 150 of them).

Of course, we are led to believe that the reason U.S. troops aren’t home for the holidays is because they are defending us and our freedom. That may have been true during the Cold War when we were faced with an existential threat in the form of a hegemonic superpower, the former Soviet Union. But today America is in a relatively secure geostrategic position with the largest and most powerful military in the world and no other country’s military capable of global power projection to invade the United States. Iraq was never about U.S. national security. And while OEF may have been a necessary military operation in the wake of 9/11, today Afghanistan – like Iraq – has become a nation-building mission largely unrelated to U.S. security. So at best, U.S. forces abroad are an oversized police force or armed social worker defending someone else’s freedom.

At worst, U.S. military forces abroad – particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan – endanger U.S. security by occupying Muslim countries and, in the case of Afghanistan, propping up a government widely acknowledged as corrupt. Both of these are grievances cited by bin Laden and other radical Islamists in their calls for jihad against America. As such, these two incontrovertible truths are a basis for anti-American sentiment throughout the Muslim world and an easy recruiting poster for terrorist recruitment.

So home for the holidays would not only be the best gift for all of our military families, but also for the country itself.

Author: Charles V. Peña

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
Policy Institute
, an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.