The Other Big Lie: The Myth American Wars Are Ending

Originally posted at TomDispatch.

Here’s my question of the week: When it comes to America’s twenty-first-century wars, does the word “end” have any meaning at all? Almost 20 years after George W. Bush and crew invaded Afghanistan, the war there is officially “ending” (as the Taliban takes large parts of the country) and all American troops are being withdrawn. Oops, except for the 650 being left behind to guard the American embassy in Kabul. It’s also true that, even as most U.S. military personnel are indeed leaving, the brutal US air war there, now being fought largely from bases in the Middle East, has yet to end. Indeed, among other places, American air power only recently blasted Taliban positions in parts of the city of Kandahar (undoubtedly killing civilians there, too). But rest assured, all of that will finally end on August 31st when the US withdrawal is complete. OOPS, except that Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the general running US Central Command, is now suggesting that the air war may continue into the unknown future.

In a similar fashion, the Iraq War, which started with that “Mission Accomplished” invasion in the spring of 2003, is now finally ending, too. After all, every last American combat soldier still there is finally going to be withdrawn before 2022 begins. We know this because the Iraqi prime minister met President Biden at the White House recently and received that very promise. OOPS, let me revise that just slightly. It turns out that Washington is really planning to withdraw at best only a few of the 2,500 US troops still in Iraq, while re-labeling all the rest “trainers” and “advisers.” Hence, no combat troops will be there and our war will, thank god, finally be over (though no one’s even considering touching, no less re-labeling, the 700 or so US troops stationed across the Iraqi border in Syria).

Oh, and remember when the last 700 US troops were withdrawn from Somalia during Donald Trump’s final days in office and the new Biden administration promptly shut down air attacks in that country? Well, that’s now so been-there-done-that, too. American military advisers, relocated to neighboring lands, are still working with the Somali troops they used to train in-country and air strikes against the al-Shabaab terror group there have once again been launched.

In the twenty-first century, in other words, war never truly seems to end for this country. As TomDispatch regular Andrew Bacevich, author most recently of After the Apocalypse: America’s Role in a World Transformed, points out today, the strange thing is that, as a subject of debate, protest, or discussion, war simply has no place on the American political agenda and hasn’t for years. Remember those giant antiwar demonstrations across the country before the invasion of Iraq began? Soon after, it seems, Americans simply withdrew from the very subject of our wars, leaving them (and all the endless taxpayer dollars that went with them) for a succession of administrations and the military-industrial complex to deal with. No point in bothering our pretty little heads about such matters, is there?

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A Case for Demilitarizing the Military

Originally posted at TomDispatch.

General Lloyd Austin, the outgoing head of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), recently testified before Congress, suggesting that Washington needed to up its troop levels in Iraq and Syria. Meanwhile, in his own congressional testimony, still-to-be-confirmed incoming CENTCOM chief General Joseph Votel, formerly head of U.S. Special Operations Command, seconded that recommendation and said he would reevaluate the American stance across the Greater Middle East with an eye, as the Guardian’s Spencer Ackerman put it, to launching “a more aggressive fight against the Islamic State.” In this light, both generals called for reviving a dismally failed $500 million program to train “moderate” Syrian rebels to support the U.S. fight against the Islamic State (IS). They both swear, of course, that they’ll do it differently this time, and what could possibly go wrong?

Meanwhile, General David Rodriguez, head of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), pressed by Senator John McCain in congressional testimony, called on the U.S. to “do more” to deal with IS supporters in Libya. And lo and behold, the New York Timesreported that Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter had only recently presented an AFRICOM and Joint Special Operations Command plan to the president’s “top national security advisers.” They were evidently “surprised” to discover that it involved potentially wide-ranging air strikes against 30 to 40 IS targets across that country. Meanwhile, in Afghanistan – U.S. Special Operations units and regular troops having recently been rushedonce again into embattled Helmand Province in the heartland of that country’s opium poppy trade General Austen and others are calling for a reconsideration of future American drawdowns and possibly the dispatch of more troops to that country.

Do you sense a trend here? In the war against the Islamic State, the Obama administration and the Pentagon have been engaged in the drip, drip, drip of what, in classic Vietnam terms, might be called “mission creep.” They have been upping American troop levels a few hundred at a time in Iraq and Syria, along with air power, and loosing Special Operations forces in combat-like operations in both countries. Now, it looks like top military commanders are calling for mission speed-up across the region. (In Libya, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan, it already seems to have begun.)

And keep in mind, watching campaign 2016, that however militaristic the solutions of the Pentagon and our generals, they are regularly put in the shade by civilians, especially the Republican candidates for president, who can barely restrain their eagerness to let mission leap loose. As Donald Trump put it in the last Republican debate, calling for up to 30,000 U.S. boots on the ground in Syria and Iraq, “I would listen to the generals.” That might now be the refrain all American politicians are obliged to sing. Similarly, John Kasich called for a new “shock and awe” campaign in the Middle East to “wipe them out.” And that’s the way it’s been in debate season – including proposals to put boots on the ground big time from Libya and possibly even the Sinai peninsula to Afghanistan, bomb the region back to the stone age, and torture terror suspects in a fashion that would have embarrassed Stone Age peoples.

Put another way, almost 15 years after America’s global war on terror was launched, we face a deeply embedded (and remarkably unsuccessful) American version of militarism and, as Gregory Foster writes today, a massive crisis in civil-military relations that is seldom recognized, no less discussed or debated. TomDispatch hopes to rectify that with a monumental post from a man who knows something about the realities of both the U.S. military and changing civilian relations to it. Gregory Foster, who teaches at National Defense University and is a decorated Vietnam veteran, suggests that it’s time we finally ask: Whatever happened to old-fashioned civilian control over the U.S. military? Implicitly, he also asks a second question: These days, who controls the civilians? ~ Tom

Pentagon Excess Has Fueled a Civil-Military Crisis
By Gregory D. Foster

Read the article here

Daydream Believers: James Risen’s Pay Any Price

Originally posted at TomDispatch.

The money should stagger you. Journalist James Risen, author of Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War, a revelatory new book about the scammers, counterterrorism grifters, careerist bureaucrats, torture con artists, and on-the-make privatizers of our post-9/11 national security state, suggests that the best figure for money spent on Washington’s war on terror, including the Iraq and Afghan wars, is four trillion dollars. If you add in the bills still to come for the care of American soldiers damaged in that global war, the figure is undoubtedly significantly higher.  In the process, an array of warrior corporations were mobilized to go into battle alongside the Pentagon and the country’s intelligence and homeland security outfits. This, in turn, transformed the global struggle into a highly privatized affair and resulted, as Risen vividly documents, in “one of the largest transfers of wealth from public to private hands in American history.” Halliburton offshoot KBR, for instance, took remarkable advantage of the opportunity and became “the largest single Pentagon contractor of the entire war,” more or less monopolizing the Iraq war zone from 2003 to 2011 and “receiving a combined total of $39.5 billion in contracts.”

So our four trillion dollar-plus investment gave rise to a crew of war profiteers that Risen dubs “the oligarchs of 9/11” and who are now wealthy beyond their wildest dreams.  And how has it gone for the rest of us?  If you remember, the goal of George W. Bush’s Global War on Terror (or, in one of the worst acronyms of the new century, GWOT) was initially to wipe out terror outfits across the planet. At the time, enemy number one, al-Qaeda, was the most modest of organizations with thousands of followers in Afghanistan and scattered groups of supporters elsewhere.  Thirteen years and all those dollars later, Islamic jihadist outfits that qualify as al-Qaeda branches, wannabes, look-alikes, or offshoots have run rampant. Undoubtedly, far more foreign jihadis – an estimated 15,000 – have traveled to Syria alone to fight for the Islamic State and its new “caliphate” than existed globally in 2001.

Some recent figures from the Global Terrorism Index of the Institute for Economics and Peace give us a basis for thinking about what’s happened in these years.  In 2013 alone, deaths related to “terrorism” – that is, civil/sectarian conflict in areas significantly destabilized directly or indirectly by U.S. military action (mainly in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, and Nigeria) – rose by a soaring 61%.  The number of countries that saw more than 50 such fatalities (the U.S. not among them) expanded from 15 to 24 in the same period.  So raise your glass to GWOT.  If nothing else, it’s managed to ensure its own profitable, privatized future for years to come.

But here’s a question: After 13 years of the war on terror, with terror running rampant, isn’t a name change in order?  A simple transformation of a single preposition would bring that name into greater sync with reality: the war for terror.

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Copyright 2014 Tom Engelhardt

Genuine, Handcrafted, Man-Made Government

From the beginning, it was to be “Russia’s Vietnam.” First the administration of President Jimmy Carter, then that of President Ronald Reagan was determined to give the Soviet Union a taste of what the U.S. had gone through in its disastrous 14-year war in Southeast Asia. As National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski would later put it, “On the day that the Soviets officially crossed the [Afghan] border [in 1979], I wrote to President Carter, saying, in essence: ‘We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam War.'” And with that in mind, the CIA (aided by the Saudis and Pakistanis) would arm, train, and advise extreme Islamist factions in Pakistan and dispatch them across the border to give the Soviets a taste of what Washington considered their own medicine, Vietnam-style.

It worked in a major way. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev would later call Afghanistan “the bleeding wound” and, in 1989, a decade after the Red Army had crossed that border, it would limp home to a fading empire on the edge of implosion. It was a classic Cold War triumph for Washington, the last needed before the Soviet Union stepped off the edge of history and disappeared… oh, except for one small thing: those well-armed extremists didn’t conveniently go away. It wasn’t mission accomplished. Not by half. A taste of Vietnam for the Russians turned out to be only the hors d’oeuvre for a main course still to come. And the rest of the disastrous history of what Chalmers Johnson would term “blowback,” even before it fully blew back not just on devastated Afghanistan, but on New York City and Washington, is painfully well known and not yet over. Not by half.

As a result, when the Bush administration launched America’s second Afghan war in October 2001, whether it knew it or not, it was prescribing for itself a taste of the medicine it had given the Soviets back in the 1980s. Think of it as the worst possible version of do-it-yourself doctoring. Now, another 13 years have passed. We’re three and a half decades beyond Brzezinksi’s urge to Vietnamize the USSR in Afghanistan and that Central Asian country is a basket case. The Taliban insurgency is back big time; the Afghan army and police are taking horrific casualties, and you can bet that, with one eye on the collapsed Iraqi army the U.S. trained and armed, there are plenty of anxious people in the Pentagon when it comes to those Afghan security forces into which the U.S. has sunk at least $60 billion. In the meantime, the “democracy” that the U.S. promised to bring to the country has experienced a second deeply fraudulent presidential election, this time with a vote so contested and filled with questionable balloting practices that the final count couldn’t be released to the country. A new government was instead cobbled together under Washington’s ministrations in a way that bears no relation to the country’s constitution.

In the meantime, Afghanistan is rife with corruption of every imaginable sort and, worst of all, its only real success story, its bumper crop, is once again the opium poppy. In fact, last year the country raised a record opium crop, worth $3 billion, beating out the previous global record holder – Afghanistan – by 50%! On America’s watch, it is the planet’s preeminent narco-state. And keep in mind that, in line with the history of the last 13 years of the American occupation and garrisoning of the country (with a possible 10 more to go), the U.S. put $7.6 billion dollars into programs of every sort to eradicate poppy growing. So, once again, mission accomplished! TomDispatch regular Ann Jones, author of They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America’s Wars – The Untold Story, looks back at what those 13 years of “America’s Afghanistan” meant to the women whom the Bush administration so proudly “liberated” on invading the country. And given its success in poppy eradication, how do you think Washington did on that one? Read her article here.

Originally posted at TomDispatch.

Ignorance Can Be Dangerous

Originally posted at TomDispatch.

Ignorance can be dangerous, as shown in a recent poll asking Americans what to do about the Ukraine crisis.  It turned out that the less those polled were capable of identifying where in the world Ukraine is, the more likely they were to want the U.S. to intervene militarily in that country.

If ever there were a demonstration of what ignorance can lead to, that poll would be right at the top of the list of sobering examples.  Sometimes, of course, we don’t know where ignorance is going to lead, but that hasn’t stopped the U.S. government from making it a central policy principle of this era.  Just the other day, for instance, National Intelligence Director James Clapper imposed a remarkable, if little discussed, gag on the whole national intelligence “community” (and, by implication, on the media as well).  From now on, officials at the 17 agencies that make up that labyrinthine bureaucracy are barred from “speaking to journalists about unclassified intelligence-related topics without permission.”  Yes, you read that right: they are barred not just from discussing classified information with the media, but unclassified information as well.

Almost nothing from that world is unclassified any more.  In the Bush and Obama years, a vast blanket of secrecy has been thrown over just about anything American intelligence outfits do or any of the documents they produce, no matter how anodyne.  Still, you never know what small things might have slipped through unclassified due to some oversight.  Thanks to the intervention of Clapper, who only months ago promised a new era of “transparency” in intelligence, problem solved.  His is a simple way to deal with leaks of even the most innocent information.  Now, if you meet with a reporter to discuss anything at all without “permission,” you are open to being disciplined, fired, or even conceivably prosecuted.

Think of this as the Obama administration’s version of an ignorance rule.  In order to keep Americans safe, it turns out, you must keep them blissfully, utterly, totally uninformed about what in the world their government knows or thinks or does in their name, unless that information is carefully vetted and approved by some official or bureaucrat.  In other words, we now live in a country in which we have a government of the knowing, by the classifiers, for the uninformed, and if you don’t like it, well, there’s a door marked “exit” that you can step through right now.

Apply to this situation what might be called the Ukraine rule and you come up with a potential formula (or so the government evidently hopes) that would go something like this: the less the American people know, the more likely they are to believe that our “safety” and “security” lie in whatever Washington wants to do. 

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The Imperial Mentality and 9/11

Editor’s note: On Tuesday, we linked to an excerpt of a Noam Chomsky essay from a forthcoming book. TomDispatch has a longer excerpt, which is linked to below.

This is, of course, the week before the tenth anniversary of the day that “changed everything.”  And enough was indeed changed that it’s easy to forget what that lost world was like.  Here’s a little reminder of that moment just before September 11, 2001:

The “usually disengaged” president, as New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd labeled him, had just returned from a prolonged, brush-cutting Crawford vacation to much criticism and a nation in trouble. (One Republican congressman complained that “it was hard for Mr. Bush to get his message out if the White House lectern had a ‘Gone Fishing’ sign on it.”) Democrats were on the attack. Journalistic coverage seemed to grow ever bolder. Bush’s poll figures were dropping. A dozen prominent Republicans, fearful of a president out of touch with the national mood, gathered for a private dinner with Karl Rove to “offer an unvarnished critique of Mr. Bush’s style and strategy.” Next year’s congressional elections suddenly seemed up for grabs. The president’s aides were desperately scrambling to reposition him as a more “commanding” figure, while, according to the polls, a majority of Americans felt the country was headed in the wrong direction. At the Pentagon, Donald Rumsfeld had “cratered”; in the Middle East “violence was rising.”

That’s a taste of the lost world of September 6-10, 2001 — a moment when the news was dominated by nothing more catastrophic than shark attacks off the Florida and North Carolina coasts — in a passage from a piece (“Shark-Bit World”) I wrote back in 2005 when that world was already beyond recovery.  A few days later, we would enter a very American hell, one from which we’ve never emerged, with George W. Bush and Dick Cheney leading the way.  Almost a decade later, Osama bin Laden may be dead, but his American legacy lives on fiercely in Washington policy when it comes to surveillance, secrecy, war, and the national security state (as well as economic meltdown at home).

This week, TomDispatch will attempt to assess that legacy, starting with this post by Noam Chomsky.  It’s a half-length excerpt from a new “preface” — actually a major reassessment of America’s war-on-terror decade — part of Seven Stories Press’s 10th anniversary reissue of his bestseller on 9/11.  Titled 9-11: Was There an Alternative?, its official publication date is this Thursday, and it includes the full version of the new essay, as well as the entire text of the older book.  It can be purchased as an e-book and is being put out simultaneously in numerous languages including French, Spanish, and Italian. Thanks to the editors at Seven Stories, TomDispatch is releasing this excerpt exclusively, but be sure to get yourself a copy of the book for the complete version.