Commentary: News, good and bad, from America's war zones

The waning days of the Bush administration are filled with news, good and bad, and American voters who should be watching the lame ducks with the eyes of a hawk are still absent without leave (AWOL).

In just one week these news bites have crawled across the bottom of the cable news screens:

  • The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that suspected terrorist detainees held in the Guantanamo prison camp are entitled to the habeas corpus rights and protection — access to the federal courts — that the Bush White House and Congress so assiduously attempted to "white-out" of the Constitution. Drum-head military courts just won't cut it, the Supremes wrote, and the government cannot turn the Constitution on and off as it chooses. President Bush said he disagreed with the decision but would abide by it — gracious of him and a very constitutional position itself.
  • Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain kept his large crew of spinners, explainers, foot removal specialists and apologists on overtime papering over the daily dose of candidate misstatements, mistakes and callous comments. Their biggest job of the week: Dealing with McCain's televised suggestion that it really isn't important when American troops in Iraq come home, only that they not come home in body bags or on hospital gurneys. That may not be important to him but it surely is very important to the 150,000 or so GIs still in Iraq and the families and friends who love them.
  • The Bush administration's attempt to jam through a U.S.-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement by July 31 seemed to be foundering both in Baghdad and in Washington, D.C. Administration attempts to write in permanent U.S. occupation of scores of military bases in Iraq as well as control over Iraqi airspace and immunity from Iraqi prosecution for not only U.S. troops but also for barely controlled U.S. contractors were running into solid opposition in both capitals. Iraqi parliamentarians were suggesting that Iraqi security forces have demonstrated enough competence that perhaps American forces should just go home.
  • The chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Adm. Mike Mullen, had some more bad news for American troops heading back to Iraq or Afghanistan for their second, third or fourth tour in combat. While the combat tour is being cut back from 15 months to 12 months later this summer, the Pentagon regrettably will have to continue to use Stop-Loss orders that keep troops scheduled to leave the ranks on duty for another combat tour. Stop-Loss, an involuntary extension on active duty, is also known as the backdoor draft.
  • Mullen said it would likely be needed to make up the numbers of trained troops for Iraq for another three years. Mullen asked his audience of 600 soldiers of the 3rd Infantry Division at Fort Stewart, Ga., how many of them had served three or more tours in combat and more than half of them raised their hands.

    In our two ongoing wars there was some good news and some bad. Developments in Iraq, post-surge, have been positive. Fewer Americans are being killed and wounded there, even as 20,000 of the 30,000 surge troops head home this summer, and that's good. But police blotters all over the country continue to report a steady flow of Iraqi civilian and police deaths by bomb attacks and assassinations. Al Qaida fighters — foreigners hated as much or more than Americans by Iraqis — are a dwindling force on the run, and that's good too. Still, there's an unsettling air over the relative calm as though we wait for some Iraqi shoe to drop at a time of Iraqi choosing.

    As for Afghanistan — where the Bush White House and Pentagon first learned to do the premature victory dance — the war is going south on us at a frightening and mostly overlooked pace. The 30,000 U.S. troops on the ground, with 20,000 other mostly NATO troops, are nowhere near enough to control Afghanistan. That would take some 200,000 troops on the ground and untold billions more dollars — troops and money that remain in short supply because both are being sucked up by our war of choice in Iraq.

    Our relations with neighboring Pakistan sank even further this week when a cross-border U.S. airstrike killed 11 Pakistani Army troops, infuriating both the military and civilian political leadership and exacerbating the considerable divide between Pakistanis who support the Afghan Taliban insurgents and those who oppose them.

    I know many Americans are worrying about whether they can afford enough gasoline to make it to the beach and a summer vacation, but there are some troublesome blips on the radar that we need to keep a sharp eye on while we are down in Margaritaville.