WASHINGTON — As the U.S. warfighting focus shifts from Iraq to Afghanistan, the transition of the Iraqi government is still an important story to watch, said Nancy Youssef, chief Pentagon correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers at Friday’s Military Reporters and Editors conference.
“The United States may say the war in Iraq is over, but Iraqis know it is far from over. And they’re living it, everyday,” said Youssef, who frequently travels to Iraq and Afghanistan.
No one can be seen as a leader if they come in on the backs of Americans, she said. The formation of the government has to be more organic, and it may not come in the form of a democracy, she said.
Even Iraq’s constitution doesn’t feel like it belongs to the country; it seems like it was written in English and then translated, Youssef said.
“I don’t know how you can build a government on a document that doesn’t even feel like it came from that country,” she said.
Panelists also said questions remain about Afghanistan, such as if the special operations forces are putting enough pressure on the Taliban, to what degree the U.S. is willing to negotiate with the group and to what extent the Pakistan government will crack down on the Taliban.
F. Whitten Peters, who was secretary of the Air Force and principal deputy general counsel of the Department of Defense during the Clinton administration, said the U.S. military also must focus on funding. He said budget talks in the coming months will make for excellent political theater as the Pentagon prepares to reduce its $160 billion budget for contingency operations to $50 billion.
With a cost of $792,000 per soldier in Afghanistan, the Army would have to withdraw 100,000 troops from the region to meet the financial constraint, he said.
Other options would include cutting spending on weapons and equipment, Peters said, but these changes could remove the US from its position as a world class power, able to swiftly occupy areas all over the globe.
“It will soon be that case that we’re not doing to be able to do that,” he said.
Heather Somerville contributed to this report.