Was 2008 the tipping point for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?
In Iraq, a troop "surge," a coalition of tribes turning against militants, and a cease-fire by Shiite militias all contributed to security gains that took root early in the year and got firmer with each passing month. But in Afghanistan, the war appeared to enter a new, expanded phase — Taliban militants refocused their violent campaign, and the U.S. military was forced to announce a "surge" in that war, which is entering its eighth year.
The year in Iraq culminated with the signing of a security agreement spelling out a full U.S. withdrawal by 2011. The year in Afghanistan ended with reviews of tactics, troop levels and policies reminiscent of previous years in the Iraq campaign.
The top stories:1. Iraq security pactU.S. and Iraqi officials — after sometimes torturous negotiations — agree on a security pact that calls for an end to the U.S. military presence in Iraq by 2011. The agreement also puts new restrictions on American combat operations in Iraq starting Jan. 1 and calls for U.S. combat troops to leave urban areas by June 30. The timelines are a departure from previous Bush administration refusals to set dates for a withdrawal. The agreement also gives some legal jurisdiction to Iraq for serious crimes committed by Americans who are off duty and off base.
2. Afghanistan violence increasesViolence rises in Afghanistan as U.S. pledges more troops. The Pentagon announces a plan to send more troops to Afghanistan amid the acknowledged expansion of Taliban influence into much of the country. Three of four combat brigades requested by commanders are expected to be placed in Afghanistan by summer. Coalition forces’ combat-related death toll has risen steadily in Afghanistan, in some recent months surpassing that of Iraq.
3. Less violence in IraqBloodshed eases in Iraq this year with the "surge" of 35,000 troops, peaking in late 2007, and the effectiveness of the "Sons of Iraq," U.S.-paid armed civilian groups. Militant Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr also calls for a unilateral cease-fire by his militia. Iraqi forces, trained by coalition troops, have taken over some security duties, although their skills are seen as uneven. Despite the progress, U.S. troops continued to be wary, and roadside bombs and suicide bombers, including women, continued to maim and claim lives of soldiers as well as Iraqi civilians.
4. Changes in commandGen. David Petraeus, left, credited as one of the architects of the changed strategy in Iraq, is appointed as Central Command chief. Petraeus leaves Baghdad in September, and is succeeded by Gen. Ray Odierno, who had served previous tours in Iraq as a division commander and chief of Multi-National Corps – Iraq.
5. McKiernan in AfghanistanA unified chain of command is created in Afghanistan under U.S. Gen. David McKiernan, below. The move is intended to reduce some of the complications and delays in a foreign force structure that had several subsidiary commands. Now, all NATO and U.S. forces in the country ultimately answer to one boss, another move in the increased emphasis on the Afghan campaign.
6. Civilian toll in AfghanistanCivilian deaths in Afghanistan — blamed on both NATO troops and Taliban militants — complicate the relationship between Afghanistan and the international coalition. At least 540 civilians are killed in the first seven months of the year, 119 by U.S. or NATO airstrikes, according to Human Rights Watch.
7. Iran’s role in IraqAccusations continue that Iran funds, trains and arms so-called "special groups" intent on destabilizing Iraq. The groups include members of al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army who ignored his call to turn the militia into a services organization, according to a Pentagon report released in the fall. U.S. officials also specifically blame Iran for supplying parts for explosively formed penetrators, a particularly lethal roadside bomb that is much more powerful than bombs made from artillery shells.
8. Musharraf resignsPakistani President Pervez Musharraf, left, resigns in August ahead of political opponents’ efforts to impeach him, altering the landscape for U.S.-Pakistani relations. Musharraf had been a key ally of the U.S. since he took power in 1999, receiving billions in U.S. military aid and launching attacks on militant groups near the country’s border with Afghanistan. After he leaves office, U.S. drones fire missiles at Pakistani soil, with the tacit agreement of the Pakistani government. And on Sept. 3, special operations forces attack al-Qaida militants in a Pakistani village, eliciting protests by the government. On Dec. 7, militants torched 160 vehicles in Pakistan that were bound for U.S.-led troops in Afghanistan.
9. Iraqis taking controlThe U.S. begins relinquishing control of the "Sons of Iraq" to the Iraqi government in the fall, and the groups are gradually being paid in dinars rather than U.S. dollars. The transition is expected to be completed by June. Although the groups are credited for helping to calm violence in the country, they have had an uneasy relationship with Iraqi troops and officials and "Sons" groups are expected to be dismantled. Some members are joining, or being trained to join, Iraqi security forces, but the others will have to find jobs elsewhere, and job training is being offered to some of them to improve their chances.
10. Pirate attacksPirates attack some 100 ships off the Somali coast in the past year, seizing about 40 vessels as they extend their range to hundreds of miles off the coast. The most high-profile plunder includes a Ukrainian ship loaded with tanks and heavy weapons, and a Saudi oil tanker loaded with $100 million in crude oil. By year’s end, the pirates still hold 14 ships and more than 250 crewmembers.