Lessons from the Long War and a Blowback World
By Tom Engelhardt
Is it too early — or already too late — to begin drawing lessons from “the Long War”? That phrase, coined in 2002 and, by 2005, being championed by Centcom Commander General John Abizaid, was meant to be a catchier name for George W. Bush’s “Global War on Terror.” That was back in the days when inside-the-Beltway types were still dreaming about a global Pax Americana and its domestic partner, a Pax Republicana, and imagining that both, once firmly established, might last forever.
“The Long War” merely exchanged the shock-’n'-awe geographical breadth of the President Bush’s chosen moniker (“global”) for a shock-’n'-awe time span. Our all-out, no-holds-barred struggle against evil-doers would be nothing short of generational as well as planetary. From Abizaid’s point of view, perhaps a little in-office surgical operation on the nomenclature of Bush’s war was, in any case, in order at a time when the Iraq War was going disastrously badly and the Afghan one was starting to look more than a little peaked as well. It was like saying: Forget that “mission accomplished” sprint to victory in 2003 and keep your eyes on the prize. We’re in it for the long slog. Continue reading →
Front and center in the debate over the Afghan War these days are General Stanley “Stan” McChrystal, Afghan war commander, whose “classified, pre-decisional” and devastating report — almost eight years and at least $220 billion later, the war is a complete disaster — was conveniently, not to say suspiciously, leaked to Bob Woodward of the Washington Post by we-know-not-who at a particularly embarrassing moment for Barack Obama; Admiral Michael “Mike” Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who has been increasingly vocal about a “deteriorating” war and the need for more American boots on the ground; and the president himself, who blitzed every TV show in sight last Sunday and Monday for his health reform program, but spent significant time expressing doubts about sending more American troops to Afghanistan. (“I’m not interested in just being in Afghanistan for the sake of being in Afghanistan… or sending a message that America is here for the duration.”)
On the other hand, here’s someone you haven’t seen front and center for a while: General David Petraeus. He was, of course, George W. Bush’s pick to lead the president’s last-ditch effort in Iraq. He was the poster boy for Bush’s military policies in his last two years. He was the highly praised architect and symbol of “the surge.” He appeared repeatedly, his chest a mass of medals and ribbons, for heavily publicized, widely televised congressional testimony, complete with charts and graphs, that was meant, at least in part, for the American public. He was the man who, to use an image from that period which has recently resurfaced, managed to synchronize the American and Baghdad “clocks,” pacifying for a time both the home and war fronts. Continue reading →
In Washington, calls are increasing, especially among anxious Democrats, for the president to commit to training ever more Afghan troops and police rather than sending in more American troops. Huge numbers for imagined future Afghan army and police forces are now bandied about in Congress and the media — though no one stops to wonder what Afghanistan, the fourth poorest country on the planet, might actually be like with a combined security force of 400,000. Not a “democracy,” you can put your top dollar on that. And with a gross national product of only $23 billion (a striking percentage of which comes from the drug trade) and an annual government budget of only about $600 million, it’s not one that could faintly maintain such a force either. Put bluntly, if U.S. officials were capable of building such a force, a version of Colin Powell’s Pottery Barn rule for Iraq would kick in and we, the American taxpayers, would own it for all eternity.
Here may be the single strangest fact of our American world: that at least three administrations — Ronald Reagan’s, George W. Bush’s, and now Barack Obama’s — drew the U.S. “defense” perimeter at the Hindu Kush; that is, in the rugged, mountainous lands of Afghanistan. Put another way, while Americans argue feverishly and angrily over what kind of money, if any, to put into health care, or decaying infrastructure, or other key places of need, until recently just about no one in the mainstream raised a peep about the fact that, for nearly eight years (not to say much of the last three decades), we’ve been pouring billions of dollars, American military know-how, and American lives into a black hole in Afghanistan that is, at least in significant part, of our own creation.
Imagine for a moment, as you read this post, what might have happened if Americans had decided to sink the same sort of money — $228 billion and rising fast — the same “civilian surges,” the same planning, thought, and effort (but not the same staggering ineffectiveness) into reclaiming New Orleans or Detroit, or into planning an American future here at home. Imagine, for a moment, when you read about the multi-millions going into further construction at Bagram Air Base, or to the mercenary company that provides “Lord of the Flies” hire-a-gun guards for American diplomats in massive super-embassies, or about the half-a-billion dollars sunk into a corrupt and fraudulent Afghan election, what a similar investment in our own country might have meant.
Ask yourself: Wouldn’t the U.S. have been safer and more secure if all the money, effort, and planning had gone towards “nation-building” in America? Or do you really think we’re safer now, with an official unemployment rate of 9.7%, an underemployment rate of 16.8%, and a record 25.5% teen unemployment rate, with soaring health-care costs, with vast infrastructural weaknesses and failures, and in debt up to our eyeballs, while tens of thousands of troops and massive infusions of cash are mustered ostensibly to fight a terrorist outfit that may number in the low hundreds or at most thousands, that, by all accounts, isn’t now even based in Afghanistan, and that has shown itself perfectly capable of settling into broken states like Somalia or well functioning cities like Hamburg. Continue reading →
Writing on the phenomenon of escalation, journalist Norman Solomon begins a recent piece this way: “The president has set a limit on the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. For now. That’s how escalation works. Ceilings become floors. Gradually.” Then he adds: “[N]o amount of spin can change the fact that the U.S. military situation in Afghanistan continues to deteriorate. It would be astonishing if plans for add-on deployments weren’t already far along at the Pentagon.”
Well, be astonished no longer. Right now, unsurprisingly enough, it’s not looking good in that country. Roadside bomb (IED) attacks are spiking (with an “all-time high” of 465 in May alone), and American and NATO deaths have jumped by 40% since 2008, 75% since 2007. And so, despite a major Obama administration expansion of the war and a significant commitment of new troops and money, fast on the heels of Solomon’s piece came the first trial balloon — the first leaks in a Washington Post piece from those unnamed, if ubiquitous, “senior military officials” — for what may be the next round of escalation.
It was a blast. I’m talking about my daughter’s wedding. You don’t often see a child of yours quite that happy. I’m no party animal, but I danced my 64-year-old legs off. And I can’t claim that, as I walked my daughter to the ceremony, or ate, or talked with friends, or simply sat back and watched the young and energetic enjoy themselves, I thought about those Afghan wedding celebrations where the “blast” isn’t metaphorical, where the bride, the groom, the partygoers in the midst of revelry die.
In the two weeks since, however, that’s been on my mind — or rather the lack of interest our world shows in dead civilians from a distant imperial war — and all because of a passage I stumbled upon in a striking article by journalist Anand Gopal. In “Uprooting an Afghan Village” in the June issue of the Progressive magazine, he writes about Garloch, an Afghan village he visited in the eastern province of Laghman. After destructive American raids, Gopal tells us, many of its desperate inhabitants simply packed up and left for exile in Afghan or Pakistani refugee camps.
Along with postcards of cowboys riding jackalopes and giant berries on flatcars, there’s a brand new entry in the American gigantism sweepstakes: an embassy complex to be built in Islamabad, Pakistan, for — if you assume the normal cost overruns on such projects — what’s likely to be close to a billion dollars. If that doesn’t make the U.S. number one in the imperial hubris footrace for all eternity, what will? The question is: with its projected “large military and intelligence contingent,” and its “surge” of diplomats, will that embassy also issue the largest visas on the planet?
Here’s the strange thing: The embassy story was broken at the end of May by the superb journalists at McClatchy News (in this case, Warren P. Stroebel and Saeed Shah). As part of what Shah, in the Christian Science Monitor, estimates as a staggering “$2-billion-plus price tag on a revamped diplomatic presence for the United States in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” they reported that an appropriation of $736 million for embassy construction had quietly made its way through both houses of Congress without a peep from anyone. This news, however, seemed to plunge off a steep cliff into a deep well of silence. Indicative as the Obama administration’s decision to build such an imperial monstrosity may be of a longer-term commitment to a wider war in the Af-Pak (as in Afghanistan-Pakistan) theater of operations, it evidently proved of no interest to anyone here.
The All-Volunteer Force (AVF) exists for a reason captured in a study by Colonel Robert D. Heinl, Jr., author of the “definitive history of the Marine Corps,” published in Armed Forces Journal in 1971. The U.S. military in Vietnam was at that moment at the edge of chaos. As Colonel Heinl put it, it was experiencing “widespread conditions… that have only been exceeded in this century by the French Army’s Nivelle mutinies of 1917 and the collapse of the Tsarist armies [of Russia] in 1916 and 1917.”
In fact, statistics flowing back to Washington about the American war machine in Vietnam then pointed toward an unimaginable nightmare. Drug use was rampant; desertions stood at 70 per thousand, a modern high; small-scale mutinies or “combat refusals” were at critical, if untabulated, levels; incidents of racial conflict had soared; and strife between “lifers” and draftees was at unprecedented levels. Reported “fraggings” — assassination attempts — against unpopular officers or NCOs had risen from 126 in 1969 to 333 in 1971, despite declining troop strength in Vietnam. According to Colonel Heinl’s figures, as many as 144 antiwar underground newspapers were being published by, or for, soldiers. And most threatening of all, active duty soldiers in relatively small numbers (as well as a swelling number of Vietnam veterans) were beginning to actively organize against the war.
The armed might of the state (and its auxiliary forces) remains in the hands of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei, and its “reelected” President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who has, according to Neil MacFarquhar of the New York Times, solidified control over the Interior Ministry (which, in turn, controlled the count for the recent presidential election), as well as the Intelligence and Justice Ministries, and various other key security and propaganda outfits. It’s not a pretty picture for unarmed demonstrators.
Whether what’s happened in Iran is an attempt by the supreme leader to “abolish the people,” a “fascist tendency,” a “coup” by the Revolutionary Guards, “the final acts of a protracted war for the control of the Iranian economy,” or something else entirely remain questions for the future. This is especially true as what New Yorker journalist Laura Secor has called a “burning silence,” backed by the repression of reporting and reporters, has descended on Iran.
Let’s face it, even Bo is photogenic, charismatic. He’s a camera hound. And as for Barack, Michelle, Sasha, and Malia — keep in mind that we’re now in a first name culture — they all glow on screen.
Before a camera they can do no wrong. And the president himself, well, if you didn’t watch his speech in Cairo, you should have. The guy’s impressive. Truly. He can speak to multiple audiences — Arabs, Jews, Muslims, Christians, as well as a staggering range of Americans — and somehow just about everyone comes away hearing something they like, feeling he’s somehow on their side. And it doesn’t even feel like pandering. It feels like thoughtfulness. It feels like intelligence.
For all I know — and the test of this is still a long, treacherous way off — Barack Obama may turn out to be the best pure politician we’ve seen since at least Ronald Reagan, if not Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He seems to have Roosevelt’s same unreadable ability to listen and make you believe he’s with you (no matter what he’s actually going to do), which is a skill not to be whistled at.