Sometimes, it's the everyday things, the ones
that fly below the radar, that matter.
Here, according to Bloomberg News, is part
of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates' recent testimony on the Afghan War
before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee:
"U.S. goals in Afghanistan must be 'modest, realistic,' and 'above all,
there must be an Afghan face on this war,' Gates said. 'The Afghan
people must believe this is their war and we are there to help them. If they
think we are there for our own purposes, then we will go the way of every
other foreign army that has been in Afghanistan.'"
Now, in our world, a statement like this seems so obvious, so reasonable as
to be beyond comment. And yet, stop a moment and think about this part of it:
"there must be an Afghan face on this war." U.S. military and civilian officials
used an equivalent phrase in 2005-2006 when things were going really, really
wrong in Iraq. It was then commonplace – and no less unremarked upon – for
them to urgently suggest
that an "Iraqi face" be put on events there.
Evidently back in vogue for a different war, the phrase is revelatory – and
oddly blunt. As an image, there's really only one way to understand it (not
that anyone here stops to do so). After all, what does it mean to "put a face"
on something that assumedly already has a face? In this case, it has to mean
putting an Afghan mask over what we know to be the actual "face" of
the Afghan War – ours – a foreign face that men like Gates recognize, quite
correctly, is not the one most Afghans want to see. It's hardly surprising
that the secretary of defense would pick up such a phrase, part of Washington's
everyday arsenal of words and images when it comes to geopolitics, power, and
And yet, make no mistake, this is Empire-speak, American-style. It's the language
– behind which lies a deeper structure of argument and thought – that is essential
to Washington's vision of itself as a planet-straddling Goliath. Think of that
"Afghan face"/mask, in fact, as part of the flotsam and jetsam that regularly
bubbles up from the American imperial unconscious.
Of course, words create realities even though such language, in all its strangeness,
essentially passes unnoticed here. Largely uncommented upon, it helps normalize
American practices in the world, comfortably shielding us from certain global
realities; but it also has the potential to blind us to those realities, which,
in perilous times, can be dangerous indeed. So let's consider just a few entries
in what might be thought of as The Dictionary of American Empire-Speak.
War Hidden in Plain Sight: There has recently been much reporting on,
some debate here about, the efficacy of the Obama administration's decision
to increase the intensity of CIA
missile attacks from drone aircraft in what Washington, in a newly coined
neologism reflecting a widening war, now calls "Af-Pak" – the Pashtun tribal
borderlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Since August 2008, more
than 30 such missile attacks have been launched on the Pakistani side of
that border against suspected al-Qaeda and Taliban targets. The pace of attacks
has actually risen
since Barack Obama entered the Oval Office, as have casualties from the missile
strikes, as well as popular
outrage in Pakistan over the attacks.
to Sen. Diane Feinstein, we also know that, despite strong official Pakistani
government protests, someone official in that country is doing more than looking
the other way while they occur. As the senator revealed recently, at least
some of the CIA's unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) cruising the skies over Af-Pak
are evidently stationed at Pakistani bases. We learned recently as well that
American Special Operations units are now regularly
making forays inside Pakistan "primarily to gather intelligence"; that
of 70 American Special Forces advisers, a "secret task force, overseen by the
United States Central Command and Special Operations Command," is now aiding
and training Pakistani Army and Frontier Corps paramilitary troops, again inside
Pakistan; and that, despite (or perhaps, in part, because of) these American
efforts, the influence of the Pakistani Taliban is actually
expanding, even as Pakistan threatens to melt down.
Mystifyingly enough, however, this Pakistani part of the American war in Afghanistan
is still referred to in major U.S. papers as a "covert war." As news about
it pours out, who it's being hidden from is one of those questions no one bothers
On Feb. 20, the New York Times' Mark Mazzetti and David E. Sanger typically
"With two missile strikes over the past week, the Obama administration
has expanded the covert war run by the Central Intelligence Agency inside Pakistan,
attacking a militant network seeking to topple the Pakistani government. …
Under standard policy for covert operations, the CIA strikes inside Pakistan
have not been publicly acknowledged either by the Obama administration or the
On Feb. 25, Mazzetti and Helene Cooper reported
that new CIA head Leon Panetta essentially bragged to reporters that "the agency's
campaign against militants in Pakistan's tribal areas was the 'most effective
weapon' the Obama administration had to combat al-Qaeda's top leadership. …
Mr. Panetta stopped short of directly acknowledging the missile strikes, but
he said that 'operational efforts' focusing on Qaeda leaders had been successful."
Siobhan Gorman of the Wall Street Journal reported the next day that
Panetta said the attacks are "probably the most effective weapon we have to
try to disrupt al-Qaeda right now." She added, "Mr. Obama and National Security
Adviser James Jones have strongly endorsed their use, [Panetta] said."
Uh, covert war? These "covert" "operational efforts" have been front-page
news in the Pakistani press for months, they were part of the U.S. presidential
campaign debates, and they certainly can't be a secret for the Pashtuns in
those border areas who must see drone aircraft overhead relatively regularly,
or experience the missiles arriving in their neighborhoods.
In the U.S., "covert war" has long been a term for wars like the U.S.-backed
Contra War against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua in the 1980s, which were openly
discussed, debated, and often lauded in this country. To a large extent, when
aspects of these wars have actually been "covert" – that is, purposely hidden
from anyone – it has been from the American public, not the enemies being warred
upon. At the very least, however, such language, however threadbare, offers
official Washington a kind of "plausible deniability" when it comes to thinking
about what kind of an "American face" we present to the world.
Imperial Naming Practices: In our press, anonymous U.S. officials now
point with pride to the increasing "precision" and "accuracy" of those drone
missile attacks in taking out Taliban or al-Qaeda figures without (supposedly)
taking out the tribespeople who live in the same villages or neighboring compounds.
Such pieces lend our air war an almost sterile quality. They tend
to emphasize the extraordinary lengths to which planners go to avoid "collateral
damage." To many Americans, it must then seem strange, even irrational, that
perfectly non-fundamentalist Pakistanis should be quite so outraged about attacks
aimed at the world's worst terrorists.
On the other hand, consider for a moment the names of those drones now regularly
in the skies over "Pashtunistan."
These are no less regularly published in our press to no comment at all. The
most basic of the armed drones goes by the name of Predator,
a moniker which might as well have come directly from those nightmarish sci-fi
movies about an alien that feasts on humans. Undoubtedly, however, it was used
in the way Col. Michael Steele of the 101st Airborne Division meant it when
he exhorted his brigade deploying to Iraq (according to Thomas E. Ricks' new
book, The Gamble) to remember: "You're the predator."
The Predator drone is armed with "only" two missiles. The more advanced drone,
originally called the Predator
B, now being deployed to the skies over Af-Pak, has been dubbed the Reaper
– as in the Grim Reaper. Now, there's only one thing such a "hunter-killer
UAV" could be reaping, and you know just what that is: lives. It can be armed
to 14 missiles (or four missiles and two 500-pound bombs), which means
it packs quite a deadly wallop.
Oh, by the way, those missiles are named as well. They're Hellfire missiles.
So, if you want to consider the nature of this covert war in terms of names
alone: Predators and Reapers are bringing down the fire from some satanic hell
upon the peasants, fundamentalist guerrillas, and terrorists of the Af-Pak
In Washington, when the Af-Pak War is discussed, it's in the bloodless,
bureaucratic language of "global counterinsurgency" or "irregular warfare"
(IW), of "soft power," "hard power," and "smart power." But flying over the
Pashtun wildlands is the blunt-edged face of predation and death, ready at
a moment's notice to deliver hellfire to those below.
Imperial Arguments: Let's pursue this just a little further. Faced
numbers of civilian
casualties from U.S. and NATO air strikes in Afghanistan and an increasingly
outraged Afghan public, American officials tend to place the blame for most
sky-borne "collateral damage" squarely on the Taliban. As Joint Chiefs Chairman
Michael Mullen bluntly
explained recently, "[T]he enemy hides behind civilians." Hence, so this
Empire-speak argument goes, dead civilians are actually the Taliban's doing.
U.S. military and civilian spokespeople have long accused Taliban guerrillas
of using civilians as "shields,"
or even of purposely luring devastating
air strikes down
on Afghan wedding parties to create civilian casualties and so inflame
the sensibilities of rural Afghanistan. This commonplace argument has two key
features: a claim that they made us do it (kill civilians) and
the implication that the Taliban fighters "hiding" among innocent villagers
or wedding revelers are so many cowards, willing to put their fellow Pashtuns
at risk rather than come out and fight like men – and, of course, given the
firepower arrayed against them, die.
The U.S. media regularly records this argument without reflecting on it. In
this country, in fact, the evil of combatants "hiding" among civilians seems
so self-evident, especially given the larger evil of the Taliban and al-Qaeda,
that no one thinks twice about it.
And yet like so much of Empire-speak on a one-way planet, this argument is
distinctly uni-directional. What's good for the guerrilla goose, so to speak,
is inapplicable to the imperial gander. To illustrate, consider the American
"pilots" flying those unmanned Predators and Reapers. We don't know exactly
where all of them are (other than not in the drones), but some are certainly
at Nellis Air
Force Base just outside Las Vegas.
In other words, were the Taliban guerrillas to leave the protection of those
civilians and come out into the open, there would be no enemy to fight in the
usual sense, not even a predatory one. The pilot firing that Hellfire missile
into some Pakistani border village or compound is, after all, using the UAV's
cameras, including by next year a new system hair-raisingly dubbed "Gorgon
Stare," to locate his target and then, via console, as in a single-shooter
video game, firing the missile, possibly from many thousands of miles away.
And yet nowhere in our world will you find anyone making the argument that
those pilots are in "hiding" like so many cowards. Such a thought seems absurd
to us, as it would if it were applied to the F-16 pilots taking off from aircraft
carriers off the Afghan coast or the B-1 pilots flying
out of unnamed Middle Eastern bases or the Indian Ocean island base of
Diego Garcia. And yet, whatever those pilots may do in Afghan skies, unless
they experience a mechanical malfunction, they are in no more danger than if
they, too, were somewhere outside Las Vegas. In the last seven years, a few
helicopters, but no planes, have gone down in Afghanistan.
When the Afghan mujahedeen fought the Soviets in the 1980s, the CIA
supplied them with hand-held Stinger missiles, the most advanced surface-to-air
missile in the U.S. arsenal, and they did indeed start knocking Soviet helicopters
and planes out of the skies (which proved the beginning of the end for the
Russians). The Afghan or Pakistani Taliban or al-Qaeda terrorists have no such
capability today, which means, if you think about it, that what we here imagine
as an "air war" involves none of the dangers we would normally associate with
war. Looked at in another light, those missile strikes and bombings are really
one-way acts of slaughter.
The Taliban's tactics are, of course, the essence of guerrilla warfare, which
always involves an asymmetrical battle against more powerful armies and weaponry,
and which, if successful, always depends on the ability of the guerrilla to
blend into the environment, natural and human, or, as Chinese Communist leader
Mao Zedong so famously put it, to "swim" in the "sea of the people."
If you imagine your enemy simply using the villagers of Afghanistan as "shields"
or "hiding" like so many cowards among them, you are speaking the language
of imperial power but also blinding yourself (or the American public) to the
actual realities of the war you're fighting.
Imperial Jokes: In October 2008, Rafael Correa, the president of Ecuador,
refused to renew the U.S. lease at Manta Air Base, one of at least 761
foreign bases, macro to micro, that the U.S. garrisons worldwide. Correa
said: "We'll renew the base on one condition: that they let us put a base
in Miami – an Ecuadorean base. If there's no problem having foreign soldiers
on a country's soil, surely they'll let us have an Ecuadorean base in the United
This qualifies as an anti-imperial joke. The "leftist" president of Ecuador
was doing no more than tweaking the nose of Goliath. An Ecuadorian base in
Miami? Absurd. No one on the planet could take such a suggestion seriously.
On the other hand, when it comes to the U.S. having a major base in Kyrgyzstan,
a Central Asian land that not one in a million Americans has ever heard of,
that's no laughing matter. After all, Washington has been paying $20 million
a year in direct rent for the use of that country's Manas Air Base (and, as
indirect rent, another $80 million has gone to various Kyrgyzstani programs).
As late as last October, the Pentagon was planning
to sink another $100 million into construction at Manas "to expand aircraft
parking areas at the base and provide a 'hot cargo pad' – an area safe enough
to load and unload hazardous and explosive cargo – to be located away from
inhabited facilities." That, however, was when things started to go wrong.
Now, Kyrgyzstan's parliament has voted to expel the U.S. from Manas within
six months, a serious blow to our resupply efforts for the Afghan War. More
outrageous yet to Washington, the Kyrgyzstanis seem to have done this at the
bidding of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has the nerve to want to reestablish
a Russian sphere of influence in what used to be the borderlands of the old
Put in a nutshell, despite the crumbling U.S. economic situation and the rising
costs of the Afghan War, we still act as if we live on a one-way planet. Some
country demanding a base in the U.S.? That's a joke or an insult, while the
U.S. potentially gaining or losing a base almost anywhere on the planet may
be an insult, but it's never a laughing matter.
Imperial Thought: Recently, to justify those missile attacks in Pakistan,
U.S. officials have been leaking details on the program's "successes" to reporters.
Anonymous officials have offered the "possibly
wishful estimate" that the CIA "covert war" has led to the deaths (or capture)
of 11 of al-Qaeda's top 20 commanders, including, according to a recent
Wall Street Journal report, "Abu Layth al-Libi, whom U.S. officials
described as 'a rising star' in the group."
"Rising star" is such an American phrase, melding as it does imagined terror
hierarchies with the lingo of celebrity tabloids. In fact, one problem with
Empire-speak, and imperial thought more generally, is the way it prevents imperial
officials from imagining a world not in their own image. So it's not surprising
that, despite their best efforts, they regularly conjure up their enemies as
a warped version of themselves – hierarchical, overly reliant on leaders, and
In the Vietnam era, for instance, American officials spent a remarkable amount
of effort sending troops to search for, and planes to bomb, the border sanctuaries
of Cambodia and Laos on a fruitless hunt for COSVN (the so-called Central Office
for South Vietnam), the supposed nerve center of the communist enemy, AKA "the
bamboo Pentagon." Of course, it wasn't there to be found, except in Washington's
In the Af-Pak "theater," we may be seeing a similar phenomenon. Underpinning
the CIA killer-drone program is a belief that the key to combating al-Qaeda
(and possibly the Taliban) is destroying its leadership one by one. As key
Pakistani officials have tried to explain, the missile attacks, which have
indeed killed some al-Qaeda and Pakistani Taliban figures (as well as whoever
was in their vicinity), are distinctly counterproductive. The deaths of those
figures in no way compensates for the outrage, the destabilization, the radicalization
that the attacks engender in the region. They may, in fact, be functionally
strengthening each of those movements.
What it's hard for Washington to grasp is this: "decapitation," to use another
American imperial term, is not a particularly effective strategy with a decentralized
guerrilla or terror organization. The fact is: a headless guerrilla movement
is nowhere near as brainless or helpless as a headless Washington would be.
Only recently, Eric Schmitt and Jane Perlez of the New York Times reported
that, while top U.S. officials were exhibiting optimism about the effectiveness
of the missile strikes, Pakistani officials were pointing to "ominous signs
of Al Qaeda's resilience" and suggesting "that al-Qaeda was replenishing killed
fighters and mid-level leaders with less experienced but more hard-core militants,
who are considered more dangerous because they have fewer allegiances to local
Pakistani tribes. … The Pakistani intelligence assessment found that al-Qaeda
had adapted to the blows to its command structure by shifting 'to conduct decentralized
operations under small but well-organized regional groups' within Pakistan
Imperial Dreams and Nightmares: Americans have rarely liked to think
of themselves as "imperial," so what is it about Rome in these last years?
First, the neocons, in the flush of seeming victory in 2002-2003 began to imagine
the U.S. as a "new Rome" (or new British Empire), or as Charles Krauthammer
wrote as early as February 2001 in Time magazine, "America is no mere
international citizen. It is the dominant power in the world, more dominant
than any since Rome."
All roads on this planet, they were then convinced, led ineluctably to Washington.
Now, of course, they visibly don't, and the imperial bragging about surpassing
the Roman or British empires has long since faded away. When it comes to the
Afghan War, in fact, those (resupply) "roads" seem
to lead, embarrassingly enough, through Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan,
Russia, and Iran. But the comparison to conquering Rome evidently remains on
When, for instance, Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen wrote an op-ed
for the Washington Post recently, drumming up support for the revised,
age-of-Obama American mission in Afghanistan, he just couldn't help starting
off with an inspiring tale about the Romans and a small Italian city-state,
Locri, that they conquered. As he tells it, the ruler the Romans installed
in Locri, a rapacious fellow named Pleminius, proved a looter and a tyrant.
And yet, Mullen assures us, the Locrians so believed in "the reputation for
equanimity and fairness that Rome had built" that they sent a delegation to
the Roman Senate, knowing they could get a hearing, and demanded restitution;
and indeed, the tyrant was removed.
Admittedly, this seems a far-fetched analogy to the U.S. in Afghanistan (and
don't for a second mix up Pleminius, that rogue, with Afghan President Hamid
Karzai, even though the Obama-ites evidently now believe him corrupt and replaceable).
Still, as Mullen sees it, the point is: "We don't always get it right. But
like the early Romans, we strive in the end to make it right. We strive to
earn trust. And that makes all the difference."
Mullen is, it seems, the Aesop of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and, in his somewhat
overheated brain, we evidently remain the conquering (but just) "early" Romans
– before, of course, the fatal rot set in.
And then there's the Washington Post's Thomas Ricks, a superb reporter
who, in his latest book, gives voice to the views of CENTCOM Commander David
Petraeus. Reflecting on Iraq, where he (like the general) believes we could
still be fighting in 2015, Ricks begins
a recent Post piece this way:
"In October 2008, as I was finishing my latest book on the Iraq war, I
visited the Roman Forum during a stop in Italy. I sat on a stone wall on the
south side of the Capitoline Hill and studied the two triumphal arches at either
end of the Forum, both commemorating Roman wars in the Middle East. … The structures
brought home a sad realization: It's simply unrealistic to believe that the
U.S. military will be able to pull out of the Middle East. … It was a week
when U.S. forces had engaged in combat in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan
– a string of countries stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian
Ocean – following in the footsteps of Alexander the Great, the Romans, and
With the waning of British power, Ricks continues, it "has been the United
States' turn to take the lead there." And our turn, as it happens, just isn't
over yet. Evidently that, at least, is the view from our imperial capital and
from our military viceroys out on the peripheries.
Honestly, Freud would have loved these guys. They seem to channel the imperial
unconscious. Take David Petraeus. For him, too, the duties and dangers of empire
evidently weigh heavily on the brain. Like a number of key figures, civilian
and military, he has lately begun to issue warnings about Afghanistan's dangers.
As the Washington Post reported,
"[Petraeus] suggested that the odds of success were low, given that foreign
military powers have historically met with defeat in Afghanistan. 'Afghanistan
has been known over the years as the graveyard of empires,' he said. 'We cannot
take that history lightly.'"
Of course, he's worrying
about the graveyard aspect of this, but what I find curious – exactly because
no one thinks it odd enough to comment on here – is the functional admission
in the use of this old adage about Afghanistan that we fall into the category
of empires, whether or not in search of a graveyard in which to die.
And he's not alone in this. Secretary of Defense Gates put the matter similarly
recently: "Without the support of the Afghan people, Gates said, the U.S. would
simply 'go the way of every other foreign army that's ever been in Afghanistan.'"
Imperial Blindness: Think of the above as just a few prospective entries
in The Dictionary of American Empire-Speak that will, of course, never
be compiled. We're so used to such language, so inured to it and to the thinking
behind it, so used, in fact, to living on a one-way planet in which all roads
lead to and from Washington, that it doesn't seem like a language at all. It's
just part of the unexamined warp and woof of everyday life in a country that
still believes it normal to garrison the planet, regularly fight wars halfway
across the globe, find triumph or tragedy in the gain or loss of an air base
in a country few Americans could locate on a map, and produce military manuals
on counterinsurgency warfare the way a do-it-yourself furniture maker would
produce instructions for constructing a cabinet from a kit.
We don't find it strange to have 16 intelligence agencies, some devoted to
listening in on, and spying on, the planet, or capable of running "covert wars"
in tribal borderlands thousands of miles distant, or of flying unmanned drones
over those same borderlands destroying those who come into camera view. We're
inured to the bizarreness of it all and of the language (and pretensions) that
go with it.
If The Dictionary of American Empire-Speak were ever produced, who
here would buy it? Who would feel the need to check out what seems like the
only reasonable and self-evident language for describing the world? How else,
after all, would we operate? How else would any American in a position of authority
talk in Washington or Baghdad or Islamabad or Rome?
So it undoubtedly seemed to the Romans, too. And we know what finally happened
to their empire and the language that went with it. Such a language plays its
role in normalizing the running of an empire. It allows officials (and in our
case the media as well) not to see what would be inconvenient to the smooth
functioning of such an enormous undertaking. Embedded in its words and phrases
is a fierce way of thinking (even if we don't see it that way), as well as
plausible deniability. And in the good times, its uses are obvious.
On the other hand, when the normal ways of empire cease to function well,
that same language can suddenly work to blind the imperial custodians – which
is, after all, what the foreign policy "team" of the Obama era is – to necessary
realities. At a moment when it might be important to grasp what the "American
face" in the mirror actually looks like, you can't see it.
And sometimes what you can't bring yourself to see can, as now, hurt you.
[Note: In thinking about a prospective Dictionary of American Empire-Speak,
I found four Web sites particularly useful for keeping me up to date: Juan
Cole's invaluable Informed Comment (I
don't know how he stays at day-in, day-out, year after year); Antiwar.com
and War in Context, where editors with
sharp eyes for global developments seem to be on the prowl 24/7; and last but
by no means least, Noah Shachtman's Danger
Room blog at Wired.com. Focused on the latest military developments, from
strategy and tactics to hunter-killer drones and "robo-beasts," Danger Room
is not only a must-follow site, but gives an everyday sense of the imperial
bizarreness of our American world. Finally, a deep bow of thanks to Christopher
Holmes, who keeps the copyediting lights burning in Japan, and TomDispatch
eternally chugging along.]
Copyright 2009 Tom Engelhardt