Thursday, June 14, 2012 2:28 PM
This post originally appeared on Tom Dispatch.
It looked like
a scene out of a Hollywood movie. In the inky
darkness, men in full combat gear, armed with automatic weapons and wearing
night-vision goggles, grabbed hold of a thick, woven cable hanging from a MH-47
Chinook helicopter. Then, in a flash, each “fast-roped” down onto a ship below.
Afterward, “Mike,” a Navy SEAL who would not give his last name, bragged to an
Army public affairs sergeant that, when they were on their game, the SEALs
could put 15 men on a ship this way in 30 seconds or less.
Once on the aft
deck, the special ops troops broke into squads and methodically searched the
ship as it bobbed in Jinhae Harbor,
Below deck and on the bridge, the commandos located several men and trained
their weapons on them, but nobody fired a shot. It was, after all, a training
All of those
ship-searchers were SEALs, but not all of them were American. Some were from
Naval Special Warfare Group 1 out of Coronado, California; others hailed from South Korea’s Naval Special
Brigade. The drill was part of Foal Eagle 2012, a multinational, joint-service
exercise. It was also a model for -- and one small part of -- a much publicized
U.S. military “pivot” from the Greater Middle East to Asia, a move that
includes sending an initial contingent of 250 Marines to Darwin, Australia,
basing littoral combat ships in Singapore, strengthening military ties with Vietnam and India, staging war games in the Philippines (as well as a
drone strike there), and shifting the majority of the Navy’s ships to the
Pacific by the end of the decade.
That modest training exercise also reflected another kind of pivot. The
face of American-style war-fighting is once again changing. Forget full-scale
invasions and large-footprint occupations on the Eurasian mainland; instead,
think: special operations forces working on their own but also training or
fighting beside allied militaries (if not outright proxy armies) in hot spots
around the world. And along with those special ops advisors, trainers, and
commandos expect ever more funds and efforts to flow into the militarization of
spying and intelligence, the use of drone aircraft, the launching of
cyber-attacks, and joint Pentagon operations with increasingly militarized
“civilian” government agencies.
Much of this
has been noted in the media, but how it all fits together into what could be
called the new global face of empire has escaped attention. And yet this
represents nothing short of a new Obama doctrine, a six-point program for
twenty-first-century war, American-style, that the administration is now
carefully developing and honing. Its global scope is already breathtaking, if
little recognized, and like Donald Rumsfeld’s military lite and David
Petraeus’s counterinsurgency operations, it is evidently going to have its day
in the sun -- and like them, it will undoubtedly disappoint in ways that will
surprise its creators.
For many years,
military has been talking up and promoting the concept of “jointness.”
An Army helicopter landing Navy SEALs on a Korean ship catches some of this
ethos at the tactical level. But the future, it seems, has something else in
store. Think of it as “blur-ness,” a kind of organizational version of
war-fighting in which a dominant Pentagon fuses its forces with other
government agencies -- especially the CIA, the State Department, and the Drug
Enforcement Administration -- in complex, overlapping missions around the
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld began his "revolution in military
affairs," steering the Pentagon toward a military-lite model of high-tech, agile forces. The concept came to a grim end in Iraq’s
embattled cities. A decade later, the last vestiges of its many failures
continue to play out in a stalemated war in Afghanistan against a rag-tag
minority insurgency that can’t be beaten. In the years since, two secretaries
of defense and a new president have presided over another transformation --
this one geared toward avoiding ruinous, large-scale land wars which the U.S. has
consistently proven unable to win.
Obama, the U.S.
has expanded or launched numerous military campaigns -- most of them utilizing
a mix of the six elements of twenty-first-century American war. Take the
American war in Pakistan
-- a poster-child for what might now be called the Obama formula, if not
doctrine. Beginning as a highly-circumscribed drone assassination campaign backed by
limited cross-border commando raids under the Bush administration,
U.S. operations in Pakistan have expanded into something close to a full-scale
robotic air war, complemented by cross-border helicopter attacks, CIA-funded “kill teams” of Afghan proxy forces, as well as
boots-on-the-ground missions by elite special operations forces, including the SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
The CIA has conducted clandestine intelligence and surveillance missions in Pakistan,
too, though its role may, in the future, be less important, thanks to Pentagon
mission creep. In April, in fact, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced the creation of a new CIA-like espionage agency
within the Pentagon called the Defense Clandestine Service. According to the Washington
Post, its aim is to expand “the military’s espionage efforts beyond war
Over the last
decade, the very notion of war zones has become remarkably muddled, mirroring
the blurring of the missions and activities of the CIA and Pentagon. Analyzing
the new agency and the “broader convergence trend” between Department of
Defense and CIA missions, the Post noted that the “blurring is also evident in
the organizations’ upper ranks. Panetta previously served as CIA director, and
that post is currently held by retired four-star Army Gen. David H. Petraeus.”
Not to be
outdone, last year the State Department, once the seat of diplomacy, continued
on its long march to militarization (and marginalization) when it
agreed to pool some of its resources with the Pentagon to create the Global Security Contingency Fund. That program will allow
the Defense Department even greater say in how aid from Washington
will flow to proxy forces in places like Yemen and the Horn of Africa.
One thing is
certain: American war-making (along with its spies and its diplomats) is
heading ever deeper into “the shadows.” Expect yet more clandestine operations
in ever more places with, of course, ever more potential for blowback in the
Light on “the Dark Continent”
likely to see an influx of Pentagon spies in the coming years is Africa. Under President Obama, operations on the
continent have accelerated far beyondthe more limited interventions of the Bush years.
Last year’s war in Libya; a regional drone campaign with missions run out of airports and
bases in Djibouti, Ethiopia, and the Indian Ocean archipelago nation of
Seychelles; a flotilla of 30 ships in that ocean supporting regional operations; a
multi-pronged military and CIA campaign against militants in Somalia, including
intelligence operations, training for Somali agents, secret prisons, helicopter attacks, and U.S. commando raids; a massive influx of cash for
counterterrorism operations across East Africa; a possible old-fashioned air war, carried out on the sly in the region
using manned aircraft; tens of millions of dollars in arms for allied mercenaries
and African troops; and a special ops expeditionary force (bolstered by State Department experts) dispatched to help capture or kill
Lord’s Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony and his senior commanders, operating
in Uganda, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Central African Republic (where U.S. Special Forces now
have a new base) only begins to scratch the surface of Washington’s
fast-expanding plans and activities in the region.
Even less well
known are other U.S.
military efforts designed to train African forces for operations now considered
integral to American interests on the continent. These include, for example, a
mission by elite Force Recon Marines from the Special Purpose Marine Air Ground
Task Force 12 (SPMAGTF-12) to train soldiers from the Uganda People's Defense
Force, which supplies the majority of troops to the African Union Mission in Somalia.
year, Marines from SPMAGTF-12 also trained soldiers from the Burundi National
Defense Force, the second-largest contingent in Somalia; sent trainers into Djibouti
(where the U.S. already maintains a major Horn of Africa base at Camp
Lemonier); and traveled to Liberia where they focused on teaching riot-control
techniques to Liberia’s military as part of an otherwise State Department
spearheaded effort to rebuild that force.
The U.S. is also conducting counterterrorism training and equipping
militaries in Algeria, Burkina Faso, Chad,
Mauritania, Niger, and Tunisia. In addition, U.S. Africa
Command (Africom) has 14 major joint-training exercises planned for 2012,
including operations in Morocco,
Cameroon, Gabon, Botswana,
South Africa, Lesotho, Senegal,
and what may become the Pakistan of Africa, Nigeria.
however, doesn’t encompass the full breadth of U.S.
training and advising missions in Africa. To
take an example not on Africom’s list, this spring the U.S. brought together 11 nations, including Cote d’Ivoire, The Gambia, Liberia, Mauritania,
and Sierra Leone
to take part in a maritime training exercise code-named Saharan Express 2012.
founding, the United States
has often meddled close to home, treating the Caribbean as its private lake and
intervening at will throughout Latin America.
During the Bush years, with
some notable exceptions, Washington’s
interest in America’s
“backyard” took a backseat to wars farther from home. Recently, however, the
Obama administration has been ramping up operations south of the border using
its new formula. This has meant Pentagon drone missions deep inside Mexico to aid that country’s
battle against the drug cartels, while CIA agents and civilian operatives from
the Department of Defense were dispatched to Mexican military bases to take part in the
country’s drug war.
In 2012, the
Pentagon has also ramped up its anti-drug operations in Honduras.
Working out of Forward Operating Base Mocoron and other remote camps
there, the U.S. military is
supporting Honduran operations by way of the methods it honed in Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition, U.S.
forces have taken part in joint operations with Honduran troops as part of a
training mission dubbed Beyond the Horizon 2012; Green Berets have been assisting Honduran Special Operations forces in
anti-smuggling operations; and a Drug Enforcement Administration
Foreign-deployed Advisory Support Team, originally created to disrupt the poppy
trade in Afghanistan, has joined forces with Honduras’s Tactical Response Team,
that country’s most elite counternarcotics unit. A glimpse of these operations
made the news recently when DEA agents, flying in an American helicopter, were involved in an aerial attack on civilians that killed two men and two pregnant women in the
remote Mosquito Coast region.
have been U.S. efforts in Guyana, where
Special Operation Forces have been training local troops in heliborne air
assault techniques.“This is the first timewe have
had this type of exercise involving SpecialOperations Forces
of the United States on such
a grandscale,” Colonel Bruce Lovell of the Guyana Defense
Force told a U.S.
public affairs official earlier this year. “It gives us a chance to validate
ourselves and see where we are, what are our shortcomings.”
The U.S. military has been similarly active
elsewhere in Latin America, concluding training exercises in Guatemala, sponsoring “partnership-building”
missions in the Dominican Republic,
El Salvador, Peru, and Panama, and reaching an agreement
to carry out 19 “activities” with the Colombian army over the next year,
including joint military exercises.
in the Middle of the Middle East
Despite the end
of the Iraq and Libyan wars, a coming drawdown of forces in Afghanistan, and
copious public announcements about its national security pivot toward Asia, Washington is by no means withdrawing
from the Greater Middle East. In addition to continuing operations in Afghanistan, the U.S. has consistently been at work
training allied troops, building up military bases, and brokering
weapons sales and arms transfers to despots in the region from Bahrain to
In fact, Yemen, like its neighbor, Somalia, across the Gulf of
Aden, has become a laboratory for Obama’s wars. There, the U.S. is
carrying out its signature new brand of warfare with “black ops” troops like
the SEALs and the Army’s Delta Force undoubtedly conducting kill/capture
missions, while “white” forces like the Green Berets and Rangers are training indigenous troops, and robot planes hunt and kill members of al-Qaeda and its affiliates,
possibly assisted by an even more secret contingent of manned aircraft.
The Middle East has also become the somewhat unlikely
poster-region for another emerging facet of the Obama doctrine: cyberwar
efforts. In a category-blurring speaking engagement, Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton surfaced at the recent Special Operations Forces Industry
Conference in Florida where she gave a speech talking up her department’s eagerness to join in the
new American way of war. “We need Special Operations Forces who are as
comfortable drinking tea with tribal leaders as raiding a terrorist compound,''
she told the crowd. “We also need diplomats and development experts who are up
to the job of being your partners."
Clinton then took the opportunity to tout her agency’s online efforts, aimed at websites used by
al-Qaeda's affiliate in Yemen.
When al-Qaeda recruitment messages appeared on the latter, she said, “our team plastered the same sites with altered
versions… that showed the toll al-Qaeda attacks have taken on the Yemeni
people.” She further noted that this information-warfare mission was carried
out by experts at State’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications
with assistance, not surprisingly, from the military and the U.S. Intelligence
on-line efforts join more potent methods of cyberwar being employed by the Pentagon and the CIA, including the recently revealed “Olympic Games,” a program of sophisticated
attacks on computers in Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities engineered and
unleashed by the National Security Agency (NSA) and Unit 8200, Israeli’s
equivalent of the NSA. As with other facets of the new way of war, these
efforts were begun under the Bush administration but significantly accelerated
under the current president, who became the first American commander-in-chief
to order sustained cyberattacks designed to cripple another country’s
Brushfires to Wildfires
globe from Central and South America to Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, the Obama administration is working out its formula
for a new American way of war. In its pursuit, the Pentagon and its
increasingly militarized government partners are drawing on everything from
classic precepts of colonial warfare to the latest technologies.
The United States
is an imperial power chastened by more than 10 years of failed, heavy-footprint
wars. It is hobbled by a hollowing-out economy, and inundated with hundreds of
thousands of recent veterans -- a staggering 45% of the troops who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq -- suffering from
service-related disabilities who will require ever more expensive care. No
wonder the current combination of special ops, drones, spy games, civilian
soldiers, cyberwarfare, and proxy fighters sounds like a safer, saner brand of
war-fighting. At first blush, it may even look like a panacea for America’s
national security ills. In reality, it may be anything but.
light-footprint Obama doctrine actually seems to be making war an ever more
attractive and seemingly easy option -- a point emphasized recently by former
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Peter Pace. "I worry about
speed making it too easy to employ force," said Pace when asked about recent efforts to make it
simpler to deploy Special Operations Forces abroad. "I worry about speed
making it too easy to take the easy answer -- let's go whack them with special
operations -- as opposed to perhaps a more laborious answer for perhaps a
better long-term solution."
As a result,
the new American way of war holds great potential for unforeseen entanglements
and serial blowback. Starting or fanning brushfire wars on several continents
could lead to raging wildfires that spread unpredictably and prove difficult,
if not impossible, to quench.
By their very
nature, small military engagements tend to get larger, and wars tend to spread
beyond borders. By definition, military action tends to have unforeseen
consequences. Those who doubt this need only look back to 2001, when three
low-tech attacks on a single day set in motion a decade-plus of war that has
spread across the globe. The response to that one day began with a war in Afghanistan, that spread to Pakistan, detoured to Iraq,
popped up in Somalia and Yemen, and so
on. Today, veterans of those Ur-interventions find themselves trying to
replicate their dubious successes in places like Mexico
and Honduras, the Central Africa
Republic and the Congo.
History demonstrates that the U.S. is not very good at winning
wars, having gone without victory in any major conflict since 1945. Smaller
interventions have been a mixed bag with modest victories in places like Panama and Grenada
and ignominious outcomes in Lebanon
(in the 1980s) and Somalia
(in the 1990s), to name a few.
The trouble is,
it’s hard to tell what an intervention will grow up to be -- until it’s too
late. While they followed different paths, Vietnam,
Afghanistan, and Iraq all began
relatively small, before growing large and ruinous. Already, the outlook for
the new Obama doctrine seems far from rosy, despite the good press it’s getting
today like a formula for easy power projection that will further U.S. imperial
interests on the cheap could soon prove to be an unmitigated disaster -- one
that likely won’t be apparent until it’s too late.
is the associate editor of TomDispatch.com. An award-winning journalist, his
work has appeared in the
Los Angeles Times, the
Nation, and regularly at TomDispatch.
He is the author/editor of several books, including the just published Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare,
2001-2050 (with Tom Engelhardt). This piece is the latest article in
his new series on the changing face of American empire, which is
being underwritten by Lannan
Foundation. You can follow him on Twitter @NickTurse,
and on Facebook.
Image by Charles
McCain, licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, February 13, 2012 8:57 AM
This post originally appeared on
In late December, the lot was just a big blank: a few burgundy metal shipping containers sitting in an expanse of crushed eggshell-colored gravel inside a razor-wire-topped fence. The American military in Afghanistan doesn’t want to talk about it, but one day soon, it will be a new hub for the American drone war in the Greater Middle East.
Next year, that empty lot will be a two-story concrete intelligence facility for America’s drone war, brightly lit and filled with powerful computers kept in climate-controlled comfort in a country where most of the population has no access to electricity. It will boast almost 7,000 square feet of offices, briefing and conference rooms, and a large “processing, exploitation, and dissemination” operations center—and, of course, it will be built with American tax dollars.
Nor is it an anomaly. Despite all the talk of drawdowns and withdrawals, there has been a years-long building boom in Afghanistan that shows little sign of abating. In early 2010, the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) had nearly 400 bases in Afghanistan. Today, Lieutenant Lauren Rago of ISAF public affairs tells TomDispatch, the number tops 450.
The hush-hush, high-tech, super-secure facility at the massive air base in Kandahar is just one of many building projects the U.S. military currently has planned or underway in Afghanistan. While some U.S. bases are indeed closing up shop or being transferred to the Afghan government, and there’s talk of combat operations slowing or ending next year, as well as a withdrawal of American combat forces from Afghanistan by 2014, the U.S. military is still preparing for a much longer haul at mega-bases like Kandahar and Bagram airfields. The same is true even of some smaller camps, forward operating bases (FOBs), and combat outposts (COPs) scattered through the country’s backlands. “Bagram is going through a significant transition during the next year to two years,” Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Gerdes of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Bagram Office recently told Freedom Builder, a Corps of Engineers publication. “We’re transitioning... into a long-term, five-year, 10-year vision for the base.”
Whether the U.S. military will still be in Afghanistan in five or 10 years remains to be seen, but steps are currently being taken to make that possible. U.S. military publications, plans and schematics, contracting documents, and other official data examined by TomDispatch catalog hundreds of construction projects worth billions of dollars slated to begin, continue, or conclude in 2012.
While many of these efforts are geared toward structures for Afghan forces or civilian institutions, a considerable number involve U.S. facilities, some of the most significant being dedicated to the ascendant forms of American warfare: drone operations and missions by elite special operations units. The available plans for most of these projects suggest durability. “The structures that are going in are concrete and mortar, rather than plywood and tent skins,” says Gerdes. As of last December, his office was involved in 30 Afghan construction projects for U.S. or international coalition partners worth almost $427 million.
The Big Base Build-Up
Recently, the New York Timesreported that President Obama is likely to approve a plan to shift much of the U.S. effort in Afghanistan to special operations forces. These elite troops would then conduct kill/capture missions and train local troops well beyond 2014. Recent building efforts in the country bear this out.
A major project at Bagram Air Base, for instance, involves the construction of a special operations forces complex, a clandestine base within a base that will afford America’s black ops troops secrecy and near-absolute autonomy from other U.S. and coalition forces. Begun in 2010, the $29 million project is slated to be completed this May and join roughly 90 locations around the country where troops from Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Afghanistan have been stationed.
Elsewhere on Bagram, tens of millions of dollars are being spent on projects that are less sexy but no less integral to the war effort, like paving dirt roads and upgrading drainage systems on the mega-base. In January, the U.S. military awarded a $7 million contract to a Turkish construction company to build a 24,000-square-foot command-and-control facility. Plans are also in the works for a new operations center to support tactical fighter jet missions, a new flight-line fire station, as well as more lighting and other improvements to support the American air war.
Last month, Afghan President Hamid Karzai ordered that the U.S.-run prison at Bagram be transferred to Afghan control. By the end of January, the U.S. had issued a $36 million contract for the construction, within a year, of a new prison on the base. While details are sparse, plans for the detention center indicate a thoroughly modern, high-security facility complete with guard towers, advanced surveillance systems, administrative facilities, and the capacity to house about 2,000 prisoners.
At Kandahar Air Field, that new intelligence facility for the drone war will be joined by a similarly-sized structure devoted to administrative operations and maintenance tasks associated with robotic aerial missions. It will be able to accommodate as many as 180 personnel at a time. With an estimated combined price tag of up to $5 million, both buildings will be integral to Air Force and possibly CIA operations involving both the MQ-1 Predator drone and its more advanced and more heavily-armed progeny, the MQ-9 Reaper.
The military is keeping information about these drone facilities under extraordinarily tight wraps. They refused to answer questions about whether, for instance, the construction of these new centers for robotic warfare are in any way related to the loss of Shamsi Air Base in neighboring Pakistan as a drone operations center, or if they signal efforts to increase the tempo of drone missions in the years ahead. The International Joint Command’s chief of Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) operations, aware that such questions were to be posed, backed out of a planned interview with TomDispatch.
“Unfortunately our ISR chief here in the International Joint Command is going to be unable to address your questions,” Lieutenant Ryan Welsh of ISAF Joint Command Media Outreach explained by email just days before the scheduled interview. He also made it clear that any question involving drone operations in Pakistan was off limits. “The issues that you raise are outside the scope under which the IJC operates, therefore we are unable to facilitate this interview request.”
Whether the construction at Kandahar is designed to free up facilities elsewhere for CIA drone operations across the border in Pakistan or is related only to missions within Afghanistan, it strongly suggests a ramping up of unmanned operations. It is, however, just one facet of the ongoing construction at the air field. This month, a $26 million project to build 11 new structures devoted to tactical vehicle maintenance at Kandahar is scheduled for completion. With two large buildings for upkeep and repairs, one devoted strictly to fixing tires, another to painting vehicles, as well as an industrial-sized car wash, and administrative and storage facilities, the big base’s building boom shows no sign of flickering out.
Construction and Reconstruction
This year, at Herat Air Base in the province of the same name bordering Turkmenistan and Iran, the U.S. is slated to begin a multimillion-dollar project to enhance its special forces’ air operations. Plans are in the works to expand apron space—where aircraft can be parked, serviced, and loaded or unloaded—for helicopters and airplanes, as well as to build new taxiways and aircraft shelters.
That project is just one of nearly 130, cumulatively valued at about $1.5 billion, slated to be carried out in Herat, Helmand, and Kandahar provinces this year, according to Army Corps of Engineers documents examined by TomDispatch. These also include efforts at Camp Tombstone and Camp Dwyer, both in Helmand Province as well as Kandahar’s FOB Hadrian and FOB Wilson. The U.S. military also recently awarded a contract for more air field apron space at a base in Kunduz, a new secure entrance and new roads for FOB Delaram II, and new utilities and roads at FOB Shank, while the Marines recently built a new chapel at Camp Bastion.
Seven years ago, Forward Operating Base Sweeney, located a mile up in a mountain range in Zabul Province, was a well-outfitted, if remote, American base. After U.S. troops abandoned it, however, the base fell into disrepair. Last month, American troops returned in force and began rebuilding the outpost, constructing everything from new troop housing to a new storage facility. “We built a lot of buildings, we put up a lot of tents, we filled a lot of sandbags, and we increased our force protection significantly,” Captain Joe Mickley, commanding officer of the soldiers taking up residence at the base, told a military reporter.
Decommission and Deconstruction
Hesco barriers are, in essence, big bags of dirt. Up to seven feet tall, made of canvas and heavy gauge wire mesh, they form protective walls around U.S. outposts all over Afghanistan. They’ll take the worst of sniper rounds, rifle-propelled grenades, even mortar shells, but one thing can absolutely wreck them—the Marines’ 9th Engineer Support Battalion.
At the beginning of December, the 9th Engineers were building bases and filling up Hescos in Helmand Province. By the end of the month, they were tearing others down.
Wielding pickaxes, shovels, bolt-cutters, powerful rescue saws, and front-end loaders, they have begun “demilitarizing” bases, cutting countless Hescos—which cost $700 or more a pop -- into heaps of jagged scrap metal and bulldozing berms in advance of the announced American withdrawal from Afghanistan. At Firebase Saenz, for example, Marines were bathed in a sea of crimson sparks as they sawed their way through the metal mesh and let the dirt spill out, leaving a country already haunted by the ghosts of British and Russian bases with yet another defunct foreign outpost. After Saenz, it was on to another patrol base slated for destruction.
Not all rural outposts are being torn down, however. Some are being handed over to the Afghan Army or police. And new facilities are now being built for the indigenous forces at an increasing rate. “If current projections remain accurate, we will award 18 contracts in February,” Bonnie Perry, the head of contracting for the Army Corps of Engineers’ Afghanistan Engineering District-South, told military reporter Karla Marshall. “Next quarter we expect that awards will remain high, with the largest number of contract awards occurring in May.” One of the projects underway is a large base near Herat, which will include barracks, dining facilities, office space, and other amenities for Afghan commandos.
Tell Me How This Ends
No one should be surprised that the U.S. military is building up and tearing down bases at the same time, nor that much of the new construction is going on at mega-bases, while small outposts in the countryside are being abandoned. This is exactly what you would expect of an occupation force looking to scale back its “footprint” and end major combat operations while maintaining an on-going presence in Afghanistan. Given the U.S. military’s projected retreat to its giant bases and an increased reliance on kill/capture black-ops as well as unmanned air missions, it’s also no surprise that its signature projects for 2012 include a new special operations forces compound, clandestine drone facilities, and a brand new military prison.
There’s little doubt Bagram Air Base will exist in five or 10 years. Just who will be occupying it is, however, less clear. After all, in Iraq, the Obama administration negotiated for some way to station a significant military force—10,000 or more troops—there beyond a withdrawal date that had been set in stone for years. While a token number of U.S. troops and a highly militarized State Department contingent remain there, the Iraqi government largely thwarted the American efforts—and now, even the State Department presence is being halved.
It’s less likely this will be the case in Afghanistan, but it remains possible. Still, it’s clear that the military is building in that country as if an enduring American presence were a given. Whatever the outcome, vestiges of the current base-building boom will endure and become part of America’s Afghan legacy.
On Bagram’s grounds stands a distinctive structure called the “Crow’s Nest.” It’s an old control tower built by the Soviets to coordinate their military operations in Afghanistan. That foreign force left the country in 1989. The Soviet Union itself departed from the planet less than three years later. The tower remains.
America’s new prison in Bagram will undoubtedly remain, too. Just who the jailers will be and who will be locked inside five years or 10 years from now is, of course, unknown. But given the history—marked by torture and deaths—of the appalling treatment of inmates at Bagram and, more generally, of the brutality toward prisoners by all parties to the conflict over the years, in no scenario are the results likely to be pretty.
Nick Turse is the associate editor of TomDispatch.com. An award-winning journalist, his work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, and regularly at TomDispatch. This article is the sixth in his new serieson the changing face of American empire, which is being underwritten by Lannan Foundation. You can follow him on Twitter @NickTurse, on Tumblr, and on Facebook.
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook.
Copyright 2012 Nick Turse
Image by wlodi, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, December 16, 2011 4:55 PM
Imagine that you are nine months pregnant and have to drive seven hours to reach the nearest hospital. You have never seen an obstetrician or midwife for prenatal care and emergency health services are miles out of reach. This is the situation in parts of Afghanistan, where the maternal mortality rate is the highest in the world.
As of 2008, it was estimated that 1 in 11 Afghan women die in childbirth. (In Greece, the country with the lowest maternal mortality rate, the statistic is 1 in 31,800.) With a fertility rate of 6.62 children per mother, the life expectancy for women in Afghanistan—recently ranked “the most dangerous country for women” by the Thomson Reuters Foundation—is less than 48 years.
Now, a national midwifery program is one of several initiatives to drastically improve women’s maternal safety, report Isobel Coleman and Gayle Tzemach Lemmon in Ms. Magazine. Funded by organizations like the U.S. Agency for International Development, the United Nations, and the European Union, the program has trained more than 2,500 midwives. Coleman and Lemmon write:
For women in the country’s most remote provinces, who face the greatest challenge accessing health care in this overwhelmingly rural country, the midwives serve as a lifeline. Of the approximately 500 birth complications that occur daily in Afghanistan, 320 happen in those rural areas. Midwives are also active in cities, making home visits to women too poor or limited in mobility to seek help at clinics or hospitals.
The midwives can affect more than just the maternal mortality rate, they continue:
Along with saving mothers’ lives, the midwives serve as homegrown role models whose economic strength and earning power are changing their families’—and their communities’—views on women’s roles. Midwives can earn around $350 each month, a substantial salary in one of the world’s poorest countries and where per capita GDP is less than $500 per year. The money matters and is playing a role in shifting male attitudes toward women’s work outside the home…. When women begin contributing economically to the family, they also have a greater say in what happens to them and to their children.
“Most people have a lot of respect for midwives because they need health care,” says Fatima, [a] student in the program. “Midwives save mothers’ lives and women’s lives.”
Source: Ms. Magazine (excerpt only available online)
Image by isafmedia, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, November 08, 2011 11:12 AM
This post originally appeared at
How about a moment of silence for the passing of the American Dream? M.R.I.C. (May it rest in carnage.)
No, I’m not talking about the old dream of opportunity that involved homeownership, a better job than your parents had, a decent pension, and all the rest of the package that’s so yesterday, so underwater, so OWS. I’m talking about a far more recent dream, a truly audacious one that’s similarly gone with the wind.
I’m talking about George W. Bush’s American Dream. If people here remember the invasion of Iraq -- and most Americans would undoubtedly prefer to forget it -- what’s recalled is kited intelligence, Saddam Hussein’s nonexistent nuclear arsenal, dumb and even dumber decisions, a bloody civil war, dead Americans, crony corporations, a trillion or more taxpayer dollars flushed down the toilet... well, you know the story. What few care to remember was that original dream -- call it The Dream -- and boy, was it a beaut!
An American Dream
It went something like this: Back in early 2003, the top officials of the Bush administration had no doubt that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, drained by years of war, no-fly zones, and sanctions, would be a pushover; that the U.S. military, which they idolized and romanticized, would waltz to Baghdad. (The word one of their supporters used in the Washington Post for the onrushing invasion was a “cakewalk.”) Nor did they doubt that those troops would be greeted as liberators, even saviors, by throngs of adoring, previously suppressed Shiites strewing flowersin their path. (No kidding, no exaggeration.)
How easy it would be then to install a “democratic” government in Baghdad -- which meant their autocratic candidate Ahmad Chalabi -- set up four or five strategically situated military mega-bases, exceedingly well-armed American small towns already on the drawing boards before the invasion began, and so dominate the oil heartlands of the planet in ways even the Brits, at the height of their empire, wouldn't have dreamed possible. (Yes, the neocons were then bragging that we would outdo the Roman and British empires rolled into one!)
As there would be no real resistance, the American invasion force could begin withdrawing as early as the fall of 2003, leaving perhaps 30,000 to 40,000 troops, the U.S. Air Force, and various spooks and private contractors behind to garrison a grateful country ad infinitum (on what was then called “the South Korean model”). Iraq's state-run economy would be privatized and its oil resources thrown open to giant global energy companies, especially American ones, which would rebuild the industry and begin pumping millions of barrels of that country's vast reserves, thus undermining the OPEC cartel's control over the oil market.
And mind you, it would hardly cost a cent. Well, at its unlikely worst, maybe $100 billion to $200 billion, but as Iraq, in the phraseof then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, “floats on a sea of oil,” most of it could undoubtedly be covered, in the end, by the Iraqis themselves.
Now, doesn’t going down memory lane just take your breath away? And yet, Iraq was a bare beginning for Bush's dreamers, who clearly felt like so many proverbial kids in a candy shop (even if they acted like bulls in a china shop). Syria, caught in a strategic pincer between Israel and American Iraq, would naturally bow down; the Iranians, caught similarly between American Iraq and American Afghanistan, would go down big time, too -- or simply be taken down Iraqi-style, and who would complain? (As the neocon quip of the moment went: “Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran.”)
And that wasn’t all. Bush’s top officials had been fervent Cold Warriors in the days before the U.S. became “the sole superpower,” and they saw the new Russia stepping into those old Soviet boots. Having taken down the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, they were already building a network of bases there, too. (Let a thousand Korean models bloom!) Next on the agenda would be rolling the Russians right out of their “near abroad,” the former Soviet Socialist Republics, now independent states, of Central Asia.
What glory! Thanks to the unparalleled power of the U.S. military, Washington would control the Greater Middle East from the Mediterranean to the Chinese border and would be beholden to no one when victory came. Great powers, phooey! They were talking about a Pax Americana on which the sun could never set. Meanwhile, there were so many other handy perks: the White House would be loosedfrom its constitutional bounds via a “unitary executive” and, success breeding success, a Pax Republicana would be established in the U.S. for eons to come (with the Democratic -- or as they said sneeringly, the “Democrat” -- Party playing the role of Iran and going down in a similar fashion).
An American Nightmare
When you wake up in a cold sweat, your heart pounding, from a dream that’s turned truly sour, sometimes it’s worth trying to remember it before it evaporates, leaving only a feeling of devastation behind.
So hold Bush’s American Dream in your head for a few moments longer and consider the devastation that followed. Of Iraq, that multi-trillion-dollar war, what’s left? An American expeditionary force, still 30,000-odd troops who were supposed to hunker down there forever, are instead packing their gear and heading “over the horizon.” Those giant American towns -- with their massive PXs, fast-food restaurants, gift shops, fire stations, and everything else -- are soon to be ghost towns, likely as not looted and stripped by Iraqis.
Multi-billions of taxpayer dollars were, of course, sunk into those American ziggurats. Now, assumedly, they are goners except for the monster embassy-cum-citadel the Bush administration built in Baghdad for three-quarters of a billion dollars. It’s to house part of a 17,000-person State Department “mission” to Iraq, including 5,000 armed mercenaries, all of whom are assumedly there to ensure that American folly is not utterly absent from that country even after “withdrawal.”
Put any spin you want on that withdrawal, but this still represents a defeat of the first order, humiliation on a scale and in a time frame that would have been unimaginable in the invasion year of 2003. After all, the U.S. military was ejected from Iraq by... well, whom exactly?
Then, of course, there’s Afghanistan, where the ultimate, inevitable departure has yet to happen, where another trillion-dollar war is still going strong as if there were no holes in American pockets. The U.S. is still taking casualties, still building up its massive base structure, still training an Afghan security force of perhaps 400,000 men in a county too poor to pay for a tenth of that (which means it’s ours to fund forever and a day).
Washington still has its stimulus program in Kabul. Its diplomats and military officials shuttle in and out of Afghanistan and Pakistan in search of “reconciliation” with the Taliban, even as CIA drones pound the enemy across the Afghan border and anyone else in the vicinity. As once upon a time in Iraq, the military and the Pentagon still talk about progress being made, even while Washington’s unease grows about a war that everyone is now officially willing to call “unwinnable.”
In fact, it’s remarkable how consistently things that are officially going so well are actually going so badly. Just the other day, for instance, despite the fact that the U.S. is training up a storm, Major General Peter Fuller, running the training program for Afghan forces, was dismissed by war commander General John Allen for dissing Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his generals. He called them “isolated from reality.”
Isolated from reality? Here’s the U.S. record on the subject: it’s costing Washington (and so the American taxpayer) $11.6 billion this year alone to train those security forces and yet, after years of such training, “not a single Afghan army battalion can operate without assistance from U.S. or allied units.”
You don’t have to be a seer to know that this, too, represents a form of defeat, even if the enemy, as in Iraq, is an underwhelming set of ragtag minority insurgencies. Still, it’s more or less a given that any American dreams for Afghanistan, like Britain’s and Russia’s before it, will be buried someday in the rubble of a devastated but resistant land, no matter what resources Washington choses to continue to squander on the task.
This, simply put, is part of a larger landscape of imperial defeat.
Cold Sweats at Dawn
Yes, we’ve lost in Iraq and yes, we’re losing in Afghanistan, but if you want a little geopolitical turn of the screw that captures the zeitgeist of the moment, check out one of the first statements of Almazbek Atambayev after his recent election as president of Kyrgyzstan, a country you’ve probably never spent a second thinking about.
Keep in mind that Bushian urge to roll back the Russians to the outskirts of Moscow. Kyrgyzstan is, of course, one of the former Central Asian SSRs of the Soviet Union, and under cover of the Afghan War, the U.S. moved in, renting out a major air base at Manas airport near Bishtek, the capital. It became a significant resupply station for the war, but also an American military foothold in the region.
Now Atambayev has announced that the U.S. will have to leave Manas when its lease is up in 2014. The last time a Kyrgyz president made such a threat, he was trying to extort an extra $40 million in rent from the globe’s richest power. This time, though, Atambayev has evidently weighed regional realities, taken a good hard look at his resurgent neighbor and the waning influence of Washington, and placed his bet -- on the Russians. Consider it a telling little gauge of who is now being rolled back where.
Isolated from reality? How about the Obama administration and its generals? Of course, Washington officials prefer not to take all this in. They’re willing to opt for isolation over reality. They prefer to talk about withdrawing troops from Iraq, but only to bolster the already powerful American garrisons throughout the Persian Gulf and so free the region, as our secretary of state put it, “from outside interference” by alien Iran. (Why, one wonders, is it even called the Persian Gulf, instead of the American Gulf?)
They prefer to talk about strengthening U.S. power and bolstering its bases in the Pacific so as to save Asia from... America’s largest creditor, the Chinese. They prefer to suggest that the U.S. will be a greater, not a lesser, power in the years to come. They prefer to “reassure allies” and talk big -- or big enough anyway.
Not too big, of course, not now that those American dreamers -- or mad visionaries, if you prefer -- are off making up to $150,000 a pop giving inspirational speeches and raking in millions for churning out their memoirs. In their place, the Obama administration is stocked with dreamless managers who inherited an expanded imperial presidency, an American-garrisoned globe, and an emptying treasury. And they then chose, on each score, to play a recognizable version of the same game, though without the soaring confidence, deep faith in armed American exceptionalism or the military solutions that went with it (which they nonetheless continue to pursue doggedly), or even the vision of global energy flows that animated their predecessors. In a rapidly changing situation, they have proven incapable of asking any questions that would take them beyond what might be called the usual tactics (drones vs. counterinsurgency, say).
In this way, Washington, though visibly diminished, remains an airless and eerily familiar place. No one there could afford to ask, for instance, what a Middle East, being transformed before our eyes, might be like without its American shadow, without the bases and fleets and drones and all the operatives that go with them.
As a result, they simply keep on keeping on, especially with Bush’s global war on terror and with the protection in financial tough times of the Pentagon (and so of the militarization of this country).
Think of it all as a form of armed denial that, in the end, is likely to drive the U.S. down. It would be salutary for the denizens of Washington to begin to mouth the word “defeat.” It’s not yet, of course, a permissible part of the American vocabulary, though the more decorous “decline” -- “the relative decline of the United States as an international force” -- has crept ever more comfortably into our lives since mid-decade. When it comes to decline, for instance, ordinary Americans are voting with the opinion poll version of their feet. In one recent poll, 69% of them declared the U.S. to be in that state. (How they might answer a question about American defeat we don’t know.)
If you are a critic of Washington, “defeat” is increasingly becoming an acceptable word, as long as you attach it to a specific war or event. But defeat outright? The full-scale thing? Not yet.
You can, of course, say many times over that the U.S. remains, as it does, an immensely wealthy and powerful country; that it has the wherewithal to right itself and deal with the disasters of these last years, which it also undoubtedly does. But take a glance at Washington, Wall Street, and the coming 2012 elections, and tell me with a straight face that that will happen. Not likely.
If you go on a march with the folks from Occupy Wall Street, you’ll hear the young chanting, “This is what democracy looks like!” It’s infectious. But here’s another chant, hardly less appropriate, if distinctly grimmer: “This is what defeat looks like!” Admittedly, it’s not as rhythmic, but it’s something that the spreading Occupy Wall Street movement, and the un- and underemployed, and those whose houses are foreclosed or “underwater,” and the millions of kids getting a subprime education and graduating, on average, more than $25,000 in hock, and the increasing numbers of poor are coming to feel in their bones, even if they haven’t put a name to it yet.
And events in the Greater Middle East played no small role in that. Think of it this way: if de-industrialization and financialization have, over the last decades, hollowed out the United States, so has the American way of war. It’s the usually ignored third part of the triad. When our wars finally fully come home, there’s no telling what the scope of this imperial defeat will prove to be like.
Bush’s American Dream was a kind of apotheosis of this country’s global power as well as its crowning catastrophe, thanks to a crew of mad visionaries who mistook military might for global strength and acted accordingly. What they and their neocon allies had was the magic formula for turning the slow landing of a declining but still immensely powerful imperial state into a self-inflicted rout, even if who the victors are is less than clear.
Despite our panoply of bases around the world, despite an arsenal of weaponry beyond anything ever seen (and with more on its way), despite a national security budget the size of the Ritz, it’s not too early to start etching something appropriately sepulchral onto the gravestone that will someday stand over the pretensions of the leaders of this country when they thought that they might truly rule the world.
I know my own nominee. Back in 2002, journalist Ron Suskind had a meeting with a “senior advisor” to George W. Bush and what that advisor told him seems appropriate for any such gravestone or future memorial to American defeat:
"The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality... That's not the way the world really works anymore… We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.'''
We’re now, it seems, in a new era in which reality is making us. Many Americans -- witness the Occupy Wall Street movement -- are attempting to adjust, to imagine other ways of living in the world. Defeat has a bad rep, but sometimes it’s just what the doctor ordered.
Still, reality is a bear, so if you just woke up in a cold sweat, feel free to call it a nightmare.
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of
The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s
as well as
The End of Victory Culture
, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. His latest book,
The United States of Fear
(Haymarket Books), is being published this month.
Copyright 2011 Tom Engelhardt
Image by Tony the Misfit, licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, October 17, 2011 12:12 PM
This post originally appeared at
It’s hard not to be inspired when you meet Shannon Galpin. At first look she’s your average smart, athletic woman, living in Colorado. Dig a little deeper and you’ll learn she’s a single mom. Spend a few more minutes talking and she’ll tell you the story of how she left her career, sold her house and launched a nonprofit, committing her life to advancing education and opportunity for women and girls.
Galpin focuses her efforts on the war-torn country of Afghanistan, and with her organization, Mountain2Mountain, has already touched the lives of hundreds of men, women and children.
As the founder of Mountain2Mountain, I’ve been lucky to travel often throughout Afghanistan, working with Afghans as they strive to rebuild their country. My passion is working with Afghan women and girls as they fight to prove their value and worth in this male dominated culture. Afghanistan is consistently ranked as the worst place to be a woman and yet women and girls are key to the future of the country.
As a woman, and specifically, as a foreign woman, I’ve had unique insights into this country thanks to the concept of the Third Gender. A concept that treats foreign women as honorary males, and allows them to interact as equals with men, while still being a woman and therefore have full access to the women. In essence, acting as their proxy when they do not have a voice.
As a mountain biker I’ve felt the weight of women’s oppression knowing that in Afghanistan, women can’t ride bikes, but have embraced the Third Gender concept to the hilt by experiencing this country on two wheels. Via my motorcycle and my mountain bike I have ridden in several areas of Afghanistan, in the hopes that I could change stereotypes back home about the beauty and future tourism of Afghanistan, while challenging the stereotypes in Afghanistan of women on bikes.
Galpin recently returned from a trip to Afghanistan, and documented her time in an exclusive photo essay for EcoSalon
Learning to fish in Panjshir River by net.
Chaihanna in Kabul—fresh kebabs street-side.
Flying with the Afghan National Army to Khost Province. A quick stopover includes time for prayer.
All images by Shannon Galpin of Mountain2Mountain. Image at top is of a Buzkashi match in Panjshir Valley—horses and riders race through adjoining fields and roadways.
Thursday, July 21, 2011 10:49 AM
Would you like to take a ride on the euthanasia coaster?
Slavoj Žižek, “philosophy’s answer to Bob Dylan,” chats with the Guardian about WikiLeaks, Lady Gaga, and a new communist society.
Obvious news, finally quantified: Two sociologists have analyzed 42 years of Rolling Stone covers and determined that women are increasingly presented as sex objects.
In the modern homestead, the woman’s role is a lot like her role in yesteryear’s homestead.
Would a medium-sized bargain be better politically for Obama than the grand bargain he was hoping for?
Even if you think your child has the next Great American Novel in them, they may need a few pointers to actually become a writer.
Gay rights improved by French fries. RIP, Wallace McCain (d. May 13, 2011).
Fun mashup: Sesame Street rock the Sure Shot.
At Denmark’s Roskilde festival, design firm UiWE tested a chic, communal urinal for women.
Star anise, sun-dried tomatoes, and cake sprinkles. Check out these amazing hyper-close-ups of common foods.
A recent Wall Street Journal editorial said that WikiLeaks and News Of The World hacking are “largely the same story.” You can’t make it up.
Rupert Murdoch and News Corp. are getting lambasted for the phone-hacking scandal. Call it eye-for-an-eye, but the hacker collective called LulzSec now has The Sun and News of the World in their crosshairs. As LulzSec’s twitter account says, “expect the lulz to flow in coming days.”
And the most misleading headline of the week award goes to…“Michele Bachmann’s Migraines: Joan Didion Weighs In”.
Paul Ford, writing for New York, mourns the end of endings brought about by social media.
A sad tale about the state of things at Ireland’s National Library.
Christopher Walken reads
The Three Little Pigs. (Just for fun.)
Have changed attitudes toward getting hammered left us with a bland literary landscape?
Renegade artists take over bus shelter ads in Madrid. Long live civil disobedience!
Downsized drama is over. The Germ Project brings back big, complex, messy theater.
This college lecture has been brought to you by the Koch brothers.
If you missed the recent episode of Frontline about the Kill/Capture campaign in Afghanistan, watch it now.
In defense of treating books badly.
Image by iluvcocacola, licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, June 23, 2011 10:22 AM
This article was originally published at
Now that Washington has at least six wars cooking (in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Yemen, and more generally, the global war on terror), Americans find themselves in a new world of war. If, however, you haven't joined the all-volunteer military, any of our 17 intelligence outfits, the Pentagon, the weapons companies and hire-a-gun corporations associated with it, or some other part of the National Security Complex, America’s distant wars go on largely without you (at least until the bills come due).
War has a way of turning almost anything upside down, including language. But with lost jobs, foreclosed homes, crumbling infrastructure, and weird weather, who even notices? This undoubtedly means that you’re using a set of antediluvian war words or definitions from your father’s day. It’s time to catch up.
So here’s the latest word in war words: what’s in, what’s out, what’s inside out. What follows are nine common terms associated with our present wars that probably don’t mean what you think they mean. Since you live in a twenty-first-century war state, you might consider making them your own.
Like defeat, it’s a “loaded” word and rather than define it, Americans should simply avoid it.
In his last press conference before retirement, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was asked whether the U.S. was “winning in Afghanistan.” He replied, “I have learned a few things in four and a half years, and one of them is to try and stay away from loaded words like ‘winning’ and ‘losing.’ What I will say is that I believe we are being successful in implementing the president's strategy, and I believe that our military operations are being successful in denying the Taliban control of populated areas, degrading their capabilities, and improving the capabilities of the Afghan national security forces.”
In 2005, George W. Bush, whom Gates also served, used the word “victory” 15times in a single speech (“National Strategy for Victory in Iraq”). Keep in mind, though, that our previous president learned about war in the movie theaters of his childhood where the Marines always advanced and Americans actually won. Think of his victory obsession as the equivalent of a mid-twentieth-century hangover.
In 2011, despite the complaints of a few leftover neocons dreaming of past glory, you can search Washington high and low for “victory.” You won’t find it. It’s the verbal equivalent of a Yeti. Being “successful in implementing the president’s strategy,” what more could you ask? Keeping the enemy on his “back foot”: hey, at $10 billiona month, if that isn’t “success,” tell me what is?
Admittedly, the assassination of Osama bin Laden was treated as if it were VJ Day ending World War II, but actually win a war? Don’t make Secretary of Defense Gates laugh!
Maybe, if everything comes up roses, in some year soon we’ll be celebrating DE (Degrade the Enemy) Day.
Any super-evil pipsqueak on whose back you can raise at least
a year for the National Security Complex.
“I actually consider al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula with Al-Awlaki as a leader within that organization probably the most significant risk to the U.S. homeland.” So said Michael Leiter, presidential adviser and the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, last February, months before Osama bin Laden was killed (and Leiter himself resigned). Since bin Laden’s death, Leiter’s assessment has been heartily seconded in word and deed in Washington. For example, New York Times reporter Mark Mazzetti recently wrote: “Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen is believed by the C.I.A. to pose the greatest immediate threat to the United States, more so than even Qaeda’s senior leadership believed to be hiding in Pakistan.”
Now, here’s the odd thing. Once upon a time, statements like these might have been tantamount to announcements of victory: That’s all they’ve got left?
Of course, once upon a time, if you asked an American who was the most dangerous man on the planet, you might have been told Adolf Hitler, or Joseph Stalin, or Mao Zedong. These days, don’t think enemy at all; think comic-book-style arch-villain Lex Luthor or Doctor Doom -- anyone, in fact, capable of standing in for globe-encompassing Evil.
Right now, post-bin-Laden, America’s super-villain of choice is Anwar al-Awlaki, an enemy with seemingly near superhuman powers to disturb Washington, but no army, no state, and no significant finances. The U.S.-born “radical cleric” lives as a semi-fugitive in Yemen, a poverty-stricken land of which, until recently, few Americans had heard. Al-Awlaki is considered at least partially responsible for two high-profile plots against the U.S.: the underwear bomber and package bombs sent by plane to Chicago synagogues. Both failed dismally, even though neither Superman nor the Fantastic Four rushed to the rescue.
As an Evil One, al-Awlaki is a voodoo enemy, a YouTube warrior (“the bin Laden of the Internet”) with little but his wits and whatever superpowers he can muster to help him. He was reputedly responsible for helping to poison the mind of Army psychiatrist Major Nidal Hasan before he blew away 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas. There’s no question of one thing: he’s gotten inside Washington’s war-on-terror head in a big way. As a result, the Obama administration is significantly intensifying its war against him and the ragtag crew of tribesmen he hangs out with who go by the name of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
It used to mean secret war, a war “in the shadows” and so beyond the public’s gaze. Now, it means a conflict in the full glare of publicity that everybody knows about, but no one can do anything about. Think: in the news, but off the books.
Go figure: today, our “covert” wars are front-page news. The top-secret operation to assassinate Osama bin Laden garnered an unprecedented 69% of the U.S. media “newshole” the week after it happened, and 90% of cable TV coverage. And America’s most secretive covert warriors, elite SEAL Team 6, caused “SEAL-mania” to break out nationwide.
Moreover, no minor drone strike in the “covert” CIA-run air war in the Pakistani tribal borderlands goes unreported. In fact, as with Yemen today, future plans for the launching or intensification of Pakistani-style covert wars are now openly discussed, debated, and praised in Washington, as well as widely reported on. At one point, CIA Director Leon Panetta even bragged that, when it came to al-Qaeda, the Agency’s covert air war in Pakistan was “the only game in town.”
Think of covert war today as the equivalent of a heat-seeking missile aimed directly at that mainstream media newshole. The “shadows” that once covered whole operations now only cover accountability for them.
In the American way of war, military bases built on foreign soil are the equivalent of heroin. The Pentagon can’t help building them and can’t live without them, but “permanent bases” don’t exist, not for Americans. Never.
That’s simple enough, but let me be absolutely clear anyway: Americans may have at least 865 bases around the world (not including those in war zones), but we have no desire to occupy other countries. And wherever we garrison (and where aren’t we garrisoning?), we don’t want to stay, not permanently anyway.
In the grand scheme of things, for a planet more than four billion years old, our 90 bases in Japan, a mere 60-odd years in existence, or our 227 bases in Germany, some also around for 60-odd years, or those in Korea, 50-odd years, count as little. Moreover, we have it on good word that permanent bases are un-American. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said as much in 2003 when the first of the Pentagon's planned Iraqi mega-bases were already on the drawing boards. Hillary Clinton said so again just the other day, about Afghanistan, and an anonymous American official added for clarification: "There are U.S. troops in various countries for some considerable lengths of time which are not there permanently." Korea anyone? So get it straight, Americans don’t want permanent bases. Period.
And that’s amazing when you think about it, since globally Americans are constantly building and upgrading military bases. The Pentagon is hooked. In Afghanistan, it’s gone totally wild -- more than 400 of them and still building! Not only that, Washington is now deep into negotiations with the Afghan government to transform some of them into “joint bases” and stay on them if not until hell freezes over, then at least until Afghan soldiers can be whipped into an American-style army. Latest best guesstimate for that? 2017without even getting close.
Fortunately, we plan to turn those many bases we built to the tune of billions of dollars, including the gigantic establishments at Bagram and Kandahar, over to the Afghans and just hang around, possibly “for decades,” as -- and the word couldn’t be more delicate or thoughtful -- “tenants.”
And by the way, accompanying the recent reports that the CIA is preparing to lend the U.S. military a major covert hand, drone-style, in its Yemen campaign, was news that the Agency is building a base of its own on a rushed schedule in an unnamed Persian Gulf country. Just one base. But don’t expect that to be the end of it. After all, that’s like eating one potato chip.
We’re going, we’re going... Just not quite yet and stop pushing!
If our bases are shots of heroin, then for the U.S. military leaving anyplace represents a form of “withdrawal,” which means the shakes. Like drugs, it’s just so darn easy to go in that Washington keeps doing it again and again. Getting out’s the bear. Who can blame them, if they don’t want to leave?
In Iraq, for instance, Washington has been in the grips of withdrawal fever since 2008 when the Bush administration agreed that all U.S. troops would leave by the end of this year. You can still hear those combat boots dragging in the sand. At this point, top administration and military officials are almost begging the Iraqis to let us remain on a few of our monster bases, like the ill-named Camp Victory or Balad Air Base, which in its heyday had air traffic that reputedly rivaledChicago’s O’Hare International Airport. But here’s the thing: even if the U.S. military officially departs, lock, stock, and (gun) barrel, Washington’s still not really planning on leaving.
In recent years, the U.S. has built near-billion-dollar “embassies” that are actually citadels-cum-regional-command-posts in the Greater Middle East. Just last week, four former U.S. ambassadors to Iraq made a plea to Congress to pony up the $5.2 billion requested by the Obama administration so that that the State Department can turn its Baghdad embassy into a massive militarized mission with 5,100 hire-a-guns and a small mercenary air force.
In sum, “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Yuh” is not a song that Washington likes to sing.
Drone War (see also Covert War):
A permanent air campaign using missile-armed pilotless planes that banishes both withdrawal and victory to the slagheap of history.
Is it even a “war” if only one side ever appears in person and only one side ever suffers damage? America’s drones are often flown from thousands of miles away by “pilots” who, on leaving their U.S. bases after a work shift “in” a war zone, see signs warning them to drive carefully because this may be “the most dangerous part of your day.” This is something new in the history of warfare.
Drones are the covert weaponry of choice in our covert wars, which means, of course, that the military just can’t wait to usher chosen reporters into its secret labs and experimental testing grounds to reveal dazzling visions of future destruction.
To make sense of drones, we probably have to stop thinking about “war” and start envisaging other models -- for example, that of the executioner who carries out a death sentence on another human being at no danger to himself. If a pilotless drone is actually an executioner’s weapon, a modern airborne version of the guillotine, the hangman’s noose, or the electric chair, the death sentence it carries with it is not decreed by a judge and certainly not by a jury of peers.
It’s assembled by intelligence agents based on fragmentary (and often self-interested) evidence, organized by targeteers, and given the thumbs-up sign by military or CIA lawyers. All of them are scores, hundreds, thousands of miles away from their victims, people they don’t know, and may not faintly understand or share a culture with. In addition, the capital offenses are often not established, still to be carried out, never to be carried out, or nonexistent. The fact that drones, despite their “precision” weaponry, regularly take out innocent civilians as well as prospective or actual terrorists reminds us that, if this is our model, Washington is a drunken executioner.
In a sense, Bush’s global war on terror called drones up from the depths of its unconscious to fulfill its most basic urges: to be endless and to reach anywhere on Earth with an Old Testament-style sense of vengeance. The drone makes mincemeat of victory (which involves an endpoint), withdrawal (for which you have to be there in the first place), and national sovereignty (see below).
Something inherent in the nature of war-torn Iraqis and Afghans from which only Americans, in and out of uniform, can save them.
Don’t be distracted by the $6.6 billion that, in the form of shrink-wrapped $100 bills, the Bush administration loaded onto C-130 transport planes, flew to liberated Iraq in 2003 for “reconstruction” purposes, and somehow mislaid. The U.S. special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction did recently suggest that it might prove to be "the largest theft of funds in national history"; on the other hand, maybe it was just misplaced... forever.
Iraq’s parliamentary speaker now claims that up to $18.7 billion in Iraqi oil funds have gone missing-in-action, but Iraqis, as you know, are corrupt and unreliable. So pay no attention. Anyway, not to worry, it wasn’t our money. All those crisp Benjamins came from Iraqi oil revenues that just happened to be held in U.S. banks. And in war zones, what can you do? Sometimes bad things happen to good $100 bills!
In any case, corruption is endemic to the societies of the Greater Middle East, which lack the institutional foundations of democratic societies. Not surprisingly then, in impoverished, narcotized Afghanistan, it’s run wild. Fortunately, Washington has fought nobly against its ravages for years. Time and again, top American officials have cajoled, threatened, even browbeat Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his compatriots to get them to crack down on corrupt practices and hold honest elections to build support for the American-backed government in Kabul.
Here’s the funny thing though: a report on Afghan reconstruction recently released by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Democratic majority staff suggests that the military and foreign “developmental” funds that have poured into the country, and which account for 97% of its gross domestic product, have played a major role in encouraging corruption. To find a peacetime equivalent, imagine firemen rushing to a blaze only to pour gasoline on it and then lash out at the building’s dwellers as arsonists.
1. Something Americans cherish and wouldn’t let any other country violate; 2. Something foreigners irrationally cling to, a sign of unreliability or mental instability.
Here’s the twenty-first-century credo of the American war state. Please memorize it: The world is our oyster. We shall not weep. We may missile [bomb, assassinate, night raid, invade] whom we please, when we please, where we please. This is to be called “American safety.”
Those elsewhere, with a misplaced reverence for their own safety or security, or an overblown sense of pride and self-worth, who put themselves in harm’s way -- watch out. After all, in a phrase: Sovereignty ‘R’ Us.
Note: As we still live on a one-way imperial planet, don’t try reversing any of the above, not even as a thought experiment. Don’t imagine Iranian drones hunting terrorists over Southern California or Pakistani special operations forces launching night raids on small midwestern towns. Not if you know what’s good for you.
A totally malleable concept that is purely in the eye of the beholder.
Which is undoubtedly why the Obama administration recently decided not to return to Congress for approval of its Libyan intervention as required by the War Powers Resolution of 1973. The administration instead issued a report essentially declaring Libya not to be a “war” at all, and so not to fall under the provisions of that resolution. As that report explained: "U.S. operations [in Libya] do not involve  sustained fighting or  active exchanges of fire with hostile forces, nor do they involve  the presence of U.S. ground troops, U.S. casualties, or a serious threat thereof, or  any significant chance of escalation into a conflict characterized by those factors."
This, of course, opens up the possibility of quite a new and sunny American future on planet Earth, one in which it will no longer be wildly utopian to imagine war becoming extinct. After all, the Obama administration is already moving to intensify and expand its [fill in the blank] in Yemen, which will meet all of the above criteria, as its [fill in the blank] in the Pakistani tribal borderlands already does. Someday, Washington could be making America safe all over the globe in what would, miraculously, be a thoroughly war-less world.
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. His latest book isThe American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s (Haymarket Books).
[Note: My special thanks go to three websites without which I simply couldn’t write pieces like this or cover the areas that interest me most: Antiwar.com, Juan Cole’s Informed Comment, and Paul Woodward’s the War in Context. All are invaluable to me. In addition, two daily services I couldn’t do without are Today’s Terrorism News, which comes out of New York University’s Center for Law and Security (and to which you can subscribe by clicking here), and the Af/Pak Channel Daily Brief, which comes out of the New America Foundation (and to which you can subscribe by clicking here). Both represent monumental effort and are appreciated.]
Image by thomashaugen, licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, May 16, 2011 1:58 PM
This article was originally published at
Objective reporting on the SEAL team that killed bin Laden was as easy to find as a Prius at a Michele Bachmann rally. The media simply couldn’t help themselves. They couldn’t stop spooning out man-sized helpings of testosterone -- the SEALs’ phallic weapons, their frat-house, haze-worthy training, their romance-novel bravado, their sweaty, heaving chests pressing against tight uniforms, muscles daring to break free...
You get the point. Towel off and read on.
What is it about the military that turns normally thoughtful journalists into war pornographers? A reporter who would otherwise make it through the day sober spends a little time with some unit of the U.S. military and promptly loses himself in ever more dramatic language about bravery and sacrifice, stolen in equal parts from Thucydides, Henry V, and Sergeant Rock comics.
I’m neither a soldier nor a journalist. I’m a diplomat, just back from 12 months as a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) leader, embedded with the military in Iraq, and let me tell you that nobody laughed harder at the turgid prose reporters used to describe their lives than the soldiers themselves. They knew they were trading hours of boredom for maybe minutes of craziness that only in retrospect seemed “exciting,” as opposed to scary, confusing, and chaotic. That said, the laziest private knew from growing up watching TV exactly what flavor to feed a visiting reporter.
In trying to figure out why journalists and assorted militarized intellectuals from inside the Beltway lose it around the military, I remembered a long afternoon spent with a gaggle of “fellows” from a prominent national security think tank who had flown into Iraq. These scholars wrote serious articles and books that important people read; they appeared on important Sunday morning talk shows; and they served as consultants to even more important people who made decisions about the Iraq War and assumedly other conflicts to come.
One of them had been on the staff of a general whose name he dropped more often than Jesus’s at a Southern Baptist A.A. meeting. He was a real live neocon. A quick Google search showed he had strongly supported going to war in Iraq, wrote apology pieces after no one could find any weapons of mass destruction there (“It was still the right thing to do”), and was now back to check out just how well democracy was working out for a paper he was writing to further justify the war. He liked military high-tech, wielded words like “awesome,” “superb,” and “extraordinary” (pronounced EXTRA-ordinary) without irony to describe tanks and guns, and said in reference to the Israeli Army, “They give me a hard-on.”
Fearing the Media vs. Using the Media
Such figures are not alone. Nerds, academics, and journalists have had trouble finding ways to talk, write, or think about the military in a reasonably objective way. A minority of them have spun off into the dark side, focused on the My Lai, Full Metal Jacket, and Platoon-style psycho killers. But most spin in the other direction, portraying our men and women in uniform as regularly, daily, hourly saving Private Ryan, stepping once more into the breach, and sacking out each night knowing they are abed with brothers.
I sort of did it, too. As a State Department Foreign Service Officer embedded with the military in Iraq, I walked in... er, deployed, unprepared. I had never served in the military and had rarely fired a weapon (and never at anything bigger than a beer can on a rock ledge). The last time I punched someone was in ninth grade. Yet over the course of a year, I found myself living and working with the 82nd Airborne, followed by the 10th Mountain Division, and finally the 3rd Infantry Division, three of the most can-do units in the Army. It was... seductive.
The military raised a lot of eyebrows in my part of the world early in the Iraq invasion with their policy of embedding journalists with front-line troops. Other than preserving OpSec (Operational Security for those of you who have never had The Experience) and not giving away positions and plans to the bad guys, journalists were free to see and report on anything. No restrictions, no holding back.
Growing up professionally within the State Department, I had been raised to fear the media. “Don’t end up on the front page of the Washington Post,” was an often-repeated warning within the State Department, and many a boss now advises young Foreign Service Officers to “re-read that email again, imagining it on the Internet, and see if you still want to send it.” And that’s when we’re deciding what office supplies to recommend to the ambassador, not anything close to the life-and-death stuff a military embed might witness.
When I started my career, the boogieman was syndicated columnist Jack Anderson, then Washington Post columnist Al Kamen. Now, it’s Jon Stewart and Wikileaks. A mention by name in any of those places is career suicide. Officially, State suggests we avoid “unscripted interactions” with the media. Indeed, in his book on Iraq and Afghan nation-building, Armed Humanitarians, Nathan Hodge brags about how he did get a few State Department people to talk to him anonymously in a 300-page book with first-person military quotes on nearly every page.
So, in 2003, we diplomats sat back and smugly speculated that the military didn’t mean it, that they’d stage-manage what embedded journalists would see and who they would be allowed to speak to. After all, if someone screwed up and the reporter saw the real thing, it would end up in disaster, as in fact happened when Rolling Stone’s Michael Hastings got Afghan War commander Stanley McCrystal axed as a “runaway general.”
We were, however, dead wrong. As everyone now agrees, journalists saw what they saw and talked to whomever they chose and the military facilitated the process. Other than McCrystal (who has since been redeemed by the same president who fired him), can anyone name another military person whacked by reporting?
I saw it myself in Iraq. General Ray Odierno, then commander of all troops in Iraq, would routinely arrive at some desert dump where I happened to be, reporters in tow. I saw for myself that they would be free to speak about anything to anyone on that Forward Operating Base (which, in acronym-mad Iraq, we all just called a FOB, rhymes with “cob”). The only exception would be me: State had a long-standing policy that on-the-record interviews with its officials had to be pre-approved by the Embassy or often by the Washington Mothership itself.
Getting such an approval before a typical reporter’s deadline ran out was invariably near impossible, which assumedly was the whole point of the system. In fact, the rules got even tougher over the course of my year in the desert. When I arrived, the SOP (standard operating procedure) allowed Provincial Reconstruction Team leaders to talk to foreign media without preapproval (on the assumption that no one in Washington read their pieces in other languages anyway and thus no one in the field could get into trouble). This was soon rescinded countrywide and preapproval was required even for these media interactions.
Detouring around me, the reporters would ask soldiers their opinions on the war, the Army, or even controversial policies like DADT. (Do I have to freaking spell it out for you? Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.) The reporters would sit through the briefings the general received, listening in as he asked questions. They were exposed to classified material, and trusted not to reveal it in print. They would go out on patrols led by 24-year-old lieutenants, where life-and-death decisions were often made, and were free to report on whatever they saw. It always amazed me -- like that scene in The Wizard of Oz where everything suddenly changes from black and white into color.
Fear Not: The Force Is With You
But the military wasn’t worried. Why? Because its officials knew perfectly well that for reporters the process was -- not to mince words -- seductive. The world, it turns out, is divided into two groups, those who served in the military and those who didn’t. For the rare journalists with service time, this would be homecoming, a chance to relive their youth filtered through memory. For the others, like me, embedding with the military felt like being invited in -- no, welcomed -- for the first time by the cool kids.
You arrive and, of course, you feel awkward, out of place. Everyone has a uniform on and you’re wearing something inappropriate you bought at L.L. Bean. You don’t know how to wear your body-armor vest and helmet, which means that someone has to show you how to dress yourself. When was the last time that happened? Instead of making fun of you, though, the soldier is cool with it and just helps.
Then, you start out not knowing what the hell anyone is saying, because they throw around terms like FOB and DFAC and POS and LT and BLUF and say Hoo-ah, but sooner or later someone begins to explain them to you one by one, and after a while you start to feel pretty cool saying them yourself and better yet, repeating them to people at home in emails and, if you’re a journalist, during live reports. (“Sorry Wolf, that’s an insider military term. Let me explain it to our viewers…”)
You go out with the soldiers and suddenly you’re riding in some kind of armored, motorized monster truck. You’re the only one without a weapon and so they have to protect you. Instead of making fun of you and looking at you as if you were dressed as a Naughty Schoolgirl, they’re cool with it. Bored at only having one another to talk to, fellow soldiers who eat the exact same food, watch the exact same TV, and sleep, pee and work together every day for a year, the troops see you as quite interesting. You can’t believe it, but they really do want to know what you know, where you’ve been, and what you’ve seen -- and you want to tell them.
Even though you may be only a few years older than many of them, you feel fatherly. For women, it works similarly, but with the added bonus that, no matter what you look like, you’re treated as the most beautiful female they’ve seen in the last six months -- and it’s probably true.
The same way one year in a dog’s life equals seven human years, every day spent in a war zone is the equivalent of a month relationship-wise. You quickly grow close to the military people you’re with, and though you may never see any of them again after next week, you bond with them.
You arrived a stranger and a geek. Now, you eat their food, watch their TV, and sleep, pee, and work together every day. These are your friends, at least for the time you’re together, and you’re never going to betray them. Under those circumstances, it’s harder than hell to say anything bad about the organization whose lowest ranking member just gave up his sleeping bag without prompting because you were too green and dumb to bring one with you.
One time I got so sick that I spent half a day inside a latrine stall. What got me out was some anonymous soldier tossing a packet of anti-diarrheal medicine in. He never said a word, just gave it to me and left. He’d likely do the same if called upon to protect me, help move my gear, or any of a thousand other small gestures.
So, take my word for it, it’s really, really hard to write about the military objectively, even if you try. That’s not to say that all journalists are shills; it’s just a warning for you to take care when you’re hanging out with, or reading, our warrior-pundits.
And yet having some perspective on the military and what it does matters as we threaten to slip into yet more multigenerational wars without purpose, watch the further militarization of foreign affairs, and devote ever more of our national budget to the military. War lovers and war pornographers can’t offer us an objective look at a world in which more and more foreigners only run into Americans when they are wearing green and carrying weapons.
I respect my military colleagues, at least the ones who took it all seriously enough to deserve that respect, and would not speak ill of them. Some do indeed make enormous sacrifices, including of their own lives, even if for reasons that are ambiguous at best to a majority of Americans. But in order to understand these men and women and the tasks they are set to, we need journalists who are willing to type with both hands, not just pass on their own wet dreams to a gullible public.
Civilian control of our military is a cornerstone of our republic, and we the people need to base our decisions on something better than Sergeant Rock comic rewrites.
Peter Van Buren spent a year in Iraq
as a State Department Foreign Service Officer
serving as Team Leader for two Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). Now in Washington, he writes about Iraq and the Middle East at his blog,
We Meant Well
. His book,
We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People (The American Empire Project, Metropolitan Books), will be published this September and can be preordered by clicking here. To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast audio interview in which Van Buren discusses the farce of nation-building in Iraq, click here, or download it to your iPod here.
[Note: The views expressed here are solely those of the author in his private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of the Department of State, the Department of Defense, or any other entity of the U.S. Government. The Department of State has not approved, endorsed, or authorized this post.]
Copyright 2011 Peter Van Buren
Image by U.S. Army Alaska, licesnsed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, April 21, 2011 12:56 PM
Military bases R U.S. Or so it seems. After the invasion of 2003, the Pentagon promptly started constructing a series of monster bases in occupied Iraq, the size of small American towns and with most of the amenities of home. These were for a projected garrison of 30,000 to 40,000 U.S. troops that top officials of the Bush administration initially anticipated would be free to hang out in that country for an armed eternity. In the end, hundreds of bases were built. (And now, hundreds have been closed down or handed over to the Iraqis and in some cases looted). With present U.S. troop strength at about 47,000 (not counting mercenaries) and falling, American officials are now practically pleading with an Iraqi government moving ever closer to the Iranians to let some American forces remain at a few giant bases beyond the official end-of-2011 withdrawal date.
Meanwhile, post-2003, the U.S. went on a base-building (or expanding) spree in the Persian Gulf, digging in and enlarging facilities in Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain, “home” to the U.S. Fifth Fleet. In that island kingdom, an Obama administration preaching “democracy” elsewhere has stood by in the face of a fierce Bahraini-Saudi campaign of repression against a majority Shiite movement for greater freedom. Meanwhile, not to be outdone, the State Department decided to build a modern ziggurat in Iraq and so oversaw the construction of the largest “embassy” on Earth in Baghdad, a regional citadel-cum-command post meant to house thousands of “diplomats” and their armed minders. It is now constructing a similar facility in Islamabad, Pakistan, while expanding a third in Kabul, Afghanistan.
In fact, in the years after the invasion of Afghanistan, the Pentagon, as Nick Turse reported for [TomDispatch.com], went on a veritable base-building bender in that country, constructing at least 400 of them, ranging from micro-outposts to monster spreads like the Bagram and Kandahar air bases, complete with gyms, PXs, Internet cafes, and fast-food outlets. Now, in the tenth year of a disastrous war, the Obama administration is evidently frantically negotiating to make at least some of these permanently ours after the much-vaunted departure of American “combat” troops in 2014. As in Iraq, American officials carefully avoid the word “permanent.” (In 2003, the Pentagon dubbed the Iraqi bases “enduring camps,” and this February Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered the following description of the Afghan situation: “In no way should our enduring commitment be misunderstood as a desire by America or our allies to occupy Afghanistan against the will of its people... We do not seek any permanent American military bases in their country.”)
And yet, despite all the bases built in the Greater Middle East and all the firepower on them, the U.S. has found itself, embarrassingly enough, dealing with a region spinning ever more rapidly out of its control. Perhaps, remembering our similarly giant base complexes in Vietnam -- the pyramids of their day -- and their postwar fate, U.S. officials have simply decided to shun “permanent” as a reasonable precaution against reality. After all, what’s permanent? Not us. Consider, for instance, the comments of the remarkable Noam Chomsky, author of Hopes and Prospects, in a post [on TomDispatch] adapted from a recent talk in Amsterdam on the subject of what in this world is too big to fail.
Read Noam Chomsky’s
“Is the World Too Big to Fail?” at TomDispatch >>
Image by The U.S. Army, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, March 18, 2011 11:04 AM
This article was originally published at
When men first made war in the air, the imagery that accompanied them was of knights jousting in the sky. Just check out movies like Wings, which won the first Oscar for Best Picture in 1927 (or any Peanuts cartoon in which Snoopy takes on the Red Baron in a literal “dogfight”). As late as 1986, five years after two American F-14s shot down two Soviet jets flown by Libyan pilots over the Mediterranean’s Gulf of Sidra, it was still possible to make the movie Top Gun. In it, Tom Cruise played “Maverick,” a U.S. Naval aviator triumphantly involved in a similar incident. (He shoots down three MiGs.)
Admittedly, by then American air-power films had long been in decline. In Vietnam, the U.S. had used its air superiority to devastating effect, bombing the north and blasting the south, but go to American Vietnam films and, while that U.S. patrol walks endlessly into a South Vietnamese village with mayhem to come, the air is largely devoid of planes.
Consider Top Gun an anomaly. Anyway, it’s been 25 years since that film topped the box-office -- and don’t hold your breath for a repeat at your local multiplex. After all, there’s nothing left to base such a film on.
To put it simply, it’s time for Americans to take the “war” out of “air war.” These days, we need a new set of terms to explain what U.S. air power actually does.
Start this way: American “air superiority” in any war the U.S. now fights is total. In fact, the last time American jets met enemy planes of any sort in any skies was in the First Gulf War in 1991, and since Saddam Hussein’s once powerful air force didn’t offer much opposition -- most of its planes fled to Iran -- that was brief. The last time U.S. pilots faced anything like a serious challenge in the skies was in North Vietnam in the early 1970s. Before that, you have to go back to the Korean War in the early 1950s.
This, in fact, is something American military types take great pride in. Addressing the cadets of the Air Force Academy in early March, for example, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates stated: “There hasn’t been a U.S. Air Force airplane lost in air combat in nearly 40 years, or an American soldier attacked by enemy aircraft since Korea.”
And he’s probably right, though it’s also possible that the last American plane shot down in aerial combat was U.S. Navy pilot Michael Scott Speicher’s jet in the First Gulf War. (The Navy continues to claim that the plane was felled by a surface-to-air missile.) As an F-117A Stealth fighter was downed by a surface-to-air missile over Serbia in 1999, it’s been more than 11 years since such a plane was lost due to anything but mechanical malfunction. Yet in those years, the U.S. has remained almost continuously at war somewhere and has used air power extensively, as in its “shock and awe” launch to the invasion of Iraq, which was meant to “decapitate” Saddam Hussein and the rest of the Iraqi leadership. (No plane was lost, nor was an Iraqi leader of any sort taken out in those 50 decapitation attacks, but “dozens” of Iraqi civilians died.) You might even say that air power, now ramping up again in Afghanistan, has continued to be the American way of war.
From a military point of view, this is something worth bragging about. It’s just that the obvious conclusions are never drawn from it.
The Valor of Pilots
Let’s begin with this: to be a “Top Gun” in the U.S. military today is to be in staggeringly less danger than any American who gets into a car and heads just about anywhere, given this country’s annual toll of about 34,000 fatal car crashes. In addition, there is far less difference than you might imagine between piloting a drone aircraft from a base thousands of miles away and being inside the cockpit of a fighter jet.
Articles are now regularly written about drone aircraft “piloted” by teams sitting at consoles in places like Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. Meanwhile, their planes are loosing Hellfire missiles thousands of miles away in Afghanistan (or, in the case of CIA “pilots,” in the Pakistani tribal borderlands). Such news accounts often focus on the eerie safety of those pilots in “wartime” and their strange detachment from the actual dangers of war -- as, for instance, in the sign those leaving Creech pass that warns them to "drive carefully" as this is “the most dangerous part of your day."
When it comes to pilots in planes flying over Afghanistan, we imagine something quite different -- and yet we shouldn’t. Based on the record, those pilots might as well be in Nevada, since there is no enemy that can touch them. They are inviolate unless their own machines betray them and, with the rarest of imaginable exceptions, will remain so.
Nor does anyone here consider it an irony that the worst charge lodged by U.S. military spokespeople against their guerrilla enemies, whose recruits obviously can’t take to the skies, is that they use “human shields” as a defense. This transgression against “the law of war” is typical of any outgunned guerrilla force which, in Mao Zedong’s dictum, sees immense benefit in “swimming” in a “sea” of civilians. (If they didn’t do so and fought like members of a regular army, they would, of course, be slaughtered.)
This is considered, however implicitly, a sign of ultimate cowardice. On the other hand, while a drone pilot cannot (yet) get a combat award citation for “valor,” a jet fighter pilot can and no one -- here at least -- sees anything strange or cowardly about a form of warfare which guarantees the American side quite literal, godlike invulnerability.
War by its nature is often asymmetrical, as in Libya today, and sometimes hideously one-sided. The retreat that turns into a rout that turns into a slaughter is a relative commonplace of battle. But it cannot be war, as anyone has ever understood the word, if one side is never in danger. And yet that is American air war as it has developed since World War II.
It’s a long path from knightly aerial jousting to air war as... well, what? We have no language for it, because accurate labels would prove deflating, pejorative, and exceedingly uncomfortable. You would perhaps need to speak of cadets at the Air Force Academy being prepared for “air slaughter” or “air assassination,” depending on the circumstances.
From those cadets to Secretary of Defense Gates to reporters covering our wars, no one here is likely to accept the taking of “war” out of air war. And because of that, it is -- conveniently -- almost impossible for Americans to imagine how American-style war must seem to those in the lands where we fight.
Apologies All Around
Consider for a moment one form of war-related naming where our language changes all the time. That’s the naming of our new generations of weaponry. In the case of those drones, the two main ones in U.S. battle zones at the moment are the Predator (as in the sci-fi film) and the Reaper (as in Grim). In both cases, the names imply an urge for slaughter and a sense of superiority verging on immortality.
And yet we don’t take such names seriously. Though we’ve seen the movies (and most Afghans haven’t), we don’t imagine our form of warfare as like that of the Predator, that alien hunter of human prey, or a Terminator, that machine version of the same. If we did, we would have quite a different picture of ourselves, which would mean quite a different way of thinking about how we make war.
From the point of view of Afghans, Pakistanis, or other potential target peoples, those drones buzzing in the sky must seem very much like real-life versions of Predators or Terminators. They must, that is, seem alien and implacable like so many malign gods. After all, the weaponry from those planes is loosed without recourse; no one on the ground can do a thing to prevent it and little to defend themselves; and often enough the missiles and bombs kill the innocent along with those our warriors consider the guilty.
Take a recent eventon a distant hillside in Afghanistan’s Kunar Province where 10 boys, including two sets of brothers, were collecting wood for their families on a winter’s day when the predators -- this time American helicopters evidently looking for insurgents who had rocketed a nearby American base -- arrived. Only one of the boys survived (with wounds) and he evidently described the experience as one of being “hunted” -- as the Predator hunts humans or human hunters stalk animals. They “hovered over us,” he said, “scanned us, and we saw a green flash,” then the helicopters rose and began firing.
For this particular nightmare, war commander General David Petraeus apologized directly to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has for years fruitlessly denounced U.S. and NATO air operations that have killed Afghan civilians. When an angered Karzai refused to accept his apology, Secretary of Defense Gates, on a surprise visit to the country, apologized as well, as did President Obama. And that was that -- for the Americans.
Forget for a moment what this incident tells us about a form of warfare in which helicopter pilots, reasonably close to the ground (and modestly more vulnerable than pilots in planes), can’t tell boys with sticks from insurgents with guns. The crucial thing to keep in mind is that, no matter how many apologies may be offered afterwards, this can’t stop. According to the Wall Street Journal, death by helicopter is, in fact, on the rise. It’s in the nature of this kind of warfare. In fact, Afghan civilians have repeatedly, even repetitiously, been blown away from the air, with or without apologies, since 2001. Over these years, Afghan participants at wedding parties, funerals, and other riteshave, for example, been wiped out with relative regularity, only sometimes with apologies to follow.
In the weeks that preceded the killing of those boys, for instance, a “NATO” -- these are usually American -- air attack took out four Afghan security guards protecting the work of a road construction firm and wounded a fifth, according to the police chief of Helmand Province; a similar “deeply regrettable incident” took out an Afghan army soldier, his wife, and his four children in Nangarhar Province; and a third, also in Kunar Province, wiped out 65 civilians, including women and children, according to Afghan government officials. Karzai recently visited a hospital and wept as he held a child wounded in the attack whose leg had been amputated.
The U.S. military did not weep. Instead, it rejected this claim of civilian deaths, insisting as it often does that the dead were “insurgents.” It is now -- and this is typical -- “investigating” the incident. General Petraeus managed to further offend Afghan officials when he visited the presidential palace in Kabul and reportedly claimed that some of the wounded children might have suffered burns not in an air attack but from their parents as punishment for bad behavior and were being counted in the casualty figures only to make them look worse.
Over the years, Afghan civilian casualties from the air have waxed and waned, depending on how much air power American commanders were willing to call in, but they have never ceased. As history tells us, air power and civilian deaths are inextricably bound together. They can’t be separated, no matter how much anyone talks about “surgical” strikes and precision bombing. It’s simply the barbaric essence, the very nature of this kind of war, to kill noncombatants.
One question sometimes raised about such casualties in Afghanistan is this: according to U.N. statistics, the Taliban (via roadside bombs and suicide bombers) kills far more civilians, including women and children, than do NATO forces, so why do the U.S.-caused deaths stick so in Afghan craws when we periodically investigate, apologize, and even pay survivors for their losses?
New York Times reporter Alissa J. Rubin puzzled over this in a recent piece and offered the following answer: “[T]hose that are caused by NATO troops appear to reverberate more deeply because of underlying animosity about foreigners in the country.” This seems reasonable as far as it goes, but don’t discount what air power adds to the foreignness of the situation.
Consider what the 20-year-old brother of two of the dead boys from the Kunar helicopter attack told the Wall Street Journal in a phone interview: "The only option I have is to pick up a Kalashnikov, RPG [rocket-propelled grenade], or a suicide vest to fight."
Whatever the Taliban may be, they remain part of Afghan society. They are there on the ground. They kill and they commit barbarities, but they suffer, too. In our version of air “war,” however, the killing and the dying are perfectly and precisely, even surgically, separated. We kill, they die. It’s that simple. Sometimes the ones we target to die do so; sometimes others stand in their stead. But no matter. We then deny, argue, investigate, apologize, and continue. We are, in that sense, implacable.
And one more thing: since we are incapable of thinking of ourselves as either predators or Predators, no less emotionless Terminators, it becomes impossible for us to see that our air “war” on terror is, in reality, a machine for creating what we then call “terrorists.” It is part of an American Global War for Terror.
In other words, although air power has long been held up as part of the solution to terrorism, and though the American military now regularly boasts about the enemy body counts it produces, and the precision with which it does so, all of that, even when accurate, is also a kind of delusion -- and worse yet, one that transforms us into Predators and Terminators. It’s not a pretty sight.
So count on this: there will be no more Top Guns. No knights of the air. No dogfights and sky-jousts. No valor. Just one-sided slaughter and targeted assassinations. That is where air power has ended up. Live with it.
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the
American Empire Project
, runs the Nation Institute's
. His latest book is
The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s
(Haymarket Books). To listen to a TomCast audio version of this post, read by Ralph Pochoda, click here or download it to your iPod, here.
[Note of thanks: To Bill Astore, TomDispatch regular, for bringing his expert eye to bear on this post; to Christopher Holmes, superior copyeditor, who is now undoubtedly doing his best to get by in Japan (and is on my mind); to Jason Ditz, of the invaluable website Antwar.com, the rare person who continues to write regularly about the civilians who die in America’s wars, and to Ralph Pochoda for doing the audio version of this piece.]
Copyright 2011 Tom Engelhardt
Image by mashleymorgan, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, March 01, 2011 1:29 PM
This article was originally published at
What if you went to a restaurant and found it rather pricey? Still, you ordered your meal and, when done, picked up the check only to discover that it was almost twice the menu price.
Welcome to the world of the real U.S. national security budget. Normally, in media accounts, you hear about the Pentagon budget and the war-fighting supplementary funds passed by Congress for our conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. That already gets you into a startling price range -- close to $700 billion for 2012 -- but that’s barely more than half of it. If Americans were ever presented with the real bill for the total U.S. national security budget, it would actually add up to more than $1.2 trillion a year.
Take that in for a moment. It’s true; you won’t find that figure in your daily newspaper or on your nightly newscast, but it’s no misprint. It may even be an underestimate. In any case, it’s the real thing when it comes to your tax dollars. The simplest way to grasp just how Americans could pay such a staggering amount annually for “security” is to go through what we know about the U.S. national security budget, step by step, and add it all up.
So, here we go. Buckle your seat belt: it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
Fortunately for us, on February 14th the Obama administration officially released its Fiscal Year (FY) 2012 budget request. Of course, it hasn’t been passed by Congress -- even the 2011 budget hasn’t made it through that august body yet -- but at least we have the most recent figures available for our calculations.
For 2012, the White House has requested $558 billion for the Pentagon’s annual “base” budget, plus an additional $118 billion to fund military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. At $676 billion, that’s already nothing to sneeze at, but it’s just the barest of beginnings when it comes to what American taxpayers will actually spend on national security. Think of it as the gigantic tip of a humongous iceberg.
To get closer to a real figure, it’s necessary to start peeking at other parts of the federal budget where so many other pots of security spending are squirreled away.
Missing from the Pentagon’s budget request, for example, is an additional $19.3 billion for nuclear-weapons-related activities like making sure our current stockpile of warheads will work as expected and cleaning up the waste created by seven decades of developing and producing them. That money, however, officially falls in the province of the Department of Energy. And then, don’t forget an additional $7.8 billion that the Pentagon lumps into a “miscellaneous” category -- a kind of department of chump change -- that is included in neither its base budget nor those war-fighting funds.
So, even though we’re barely started, we’ve already hit a total official FY 2012 Pentagon budget request of:
$703.1 billion dollars.
Not usually included in national security spending are hundreds of billions of dollars that American taxpayers are asked to spend to pay for past wars, and to support our current and future national security strategy.
For starters, that $117.8 billion war-funding request for the Department of Defense doesn’t include certain actual “war-related fighting” costs. Take, for instance, the counterterrorism activities of the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development. For the first time, just as with the Pentagon budget, the FY 2012 request divides what’s called "International Affairs" in two: that is, into an annual "base" budget as well as funding for "Overseas Contingency Operations" related to Iraq and Afghanistan. (In the Bush years, these used to be called the Global War on Terror.) The State Department’s contribution? $8.7 billion. That brings the grand but very partial total so far to:
The White House has also requested $71.6 billion for a post-2001 category called “homeland security” -- of which $18.1 billion is funded through the Department of Defense. The remaining $53.5 billion goes through various other federal accounts, including the Department of Homeland Security ($37 billion), the Department of Health and Human Services ($4.6 billion), and the Department of Justice ($4.6 billion). All of it is, however, national security funding which brings our total to:
The U.S. intelligence budget was technically classified prior to 2007, although at roughly $40 billion annually, it was considered one of the worst-kept secrets in Washington. Since then, as a result of recommendations by the 9/11 Commission, Congress has required that the government reveal the total amount spent on intelligence work related to the National Intelligence Program (NIP).
This work done by federal agencies like the CIA and the National Security Agency consists of keeping an eye on and trying to understand what other nations are doing and thinking, as well as a broad range of “covert operations” such as those being conducted in Pakistan. In this area, we won’t have figures until FY 2012 ends. The latest NIP funding figure we do have is $53.1 billion for FY 2010. There’s little question that the FY 2012 figure will be higher, but let’s be safe and stick with what we know. (Keep in mind that the government spends plenty more on “intelligence.” Additional funds for the Military Intelligence Program (MIP), however, are already included in the Pentagon’s 2012 base budget and war-fighting supplemental, though we don’t know what they are. The FY 2010 funding for MIP, again the latest figure available, was $27 billion.) In anycase, add that $53.1 billion and we’re at:
See the number continue to rise in the rest of Chris Hellman's essay on
Panel image by
, licensed under
Thursday, January 27, 2011 12:26 PM
Oh, the nostalgia of it all! As Nick Turse reminds us in his book The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives, when the media went after the Pentagon in the 1980s for outrageous spending, at stake was “a $7,600 coffee pot, $9,600 Allen wrenches, and -- the most famous pork barrel item of them all -- those $640 toilet seats.” Same in the 1990s with the $2,187 the Department of Defense doled out for a C-17 door hinge otherwise purchasable for $31, the $5.41 screw thread inserts worth 29 cents, and the $75.60 screw sets priced in the ordinary world at 57 cents.
Weren’t those the good old days? Now, few take out after the DoD for such minor peccadillos, not when a $75.60 screw set looks like a bargain-basement deal compared to a Pentagon that has already invested $20 billion in training the Afghan military and police and is prepared to pay $11.6 billion this year and possibly $12.8 billion in 2012 for more of the same; or to an intelligence outfit, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, that doesn’t hesitate to sink $1.8 billion into an all-new headquarters complex in Virginia for its 16,000 employees and its estimated black budget of $5 billion; or to the close to $200 million that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has, according to a McClatchy News investigation, sunk into construction projects in Afghanistan that “have failed, face serious delays, or resulted in subpar work”; or to a Department of Homeland Security that thought it a brilliant idea to fund an “emergency operations center” in Poynette, Wisconsin (population 2,266) to the tune of $1 million; or to General David Petraeus who, in 2008 as Iraq War commander, invested $1 million in turning a dried-up lake in Baghdad into an Iraqi water park to win a few extra hearts and minds. (Within two years, thanks in part to neighborhood power cuts, the lake had dried up again and the park was a desolate wreck.)
Where, in fact, are those Allen wrenches now that we need them, now that Congress has insisted that an alternate second engine (being built by Lockheed Martin) should be kept in production for the staggeringly costly, ever-delayed F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which already has an engine (being built by Pratt & Whitney)? Even the Pentagon doesn’t want that second multi-billion dollar engine built, the White House has denounced it, but Lockheed is still being paid. All of this, and so much more, should be shocking waste at a moment when Camden, New Jersey, the nation’s “second most dangerous” city, has just laid off nearly half its police force and almost a third of its firefighters. But few here even blink.
Sacred cow? Somehow it seems like the perfect term for the U.S. national security budget. Let Andrew Bacevich, author most recently of the must-read bestseller, Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War, explain just how we landed in this hole and just why we’re not likely to get out of it.
Read Andrew Bacevich’s
“Cow Most Sacred” at
Thursday, January 20, 2011 1:11 PM
Middle Eastern affairs and conflicts are, to say the least, mired in complexity. America’s fingers are dipped in many of the region’s interests—halting the spread of terrorism, securing oil reserves, ensuring non-proliferation of nuclear technology, and controlling the opium trade, just to name a few. Getting the story straight is difficult for seasoned reporters and exponentially harder for a blogger in the comfortable embrace of his Midwestern cubicle. After world-rattling events, newshounds balk at our country’s feeble grasp of Middle Eastern contexts and lack of strategic intelligence and foresight.
Well, that need-to-know information can’t always be collected and those highly-sought experts shouldn’t necessarily be trusted, according to Columbia Journalism Review—especially in a country like Afghanistan, where professional journalism is a fairly new institution. “Afghan journalists are relatively new to their work, and they have been criticized for lacking professionalism,” writes CJR’s Vanessa M. Gezari. “But Afghan journalists describe the world they see: a complex place, littered with overlapping, conflicting accounts. There are no reliable sources here.” The other issue faced by Afghan journalists is that their mission—uncovering truth in a burgeoning democracy—is relatively similar to that of Western military intelligence officers. According to Gezari, “For Afghan journalists, the methodological similarity between reporting and intelligence work is problematic. Journalism has little institutional standing in Afghanistan, and many Afghan reporters told me that ordinary people suspect journalists of spying.”
All solid journalism clearly requires proper training. Eager to test out the tools of their trade, journalism professor Diane Winston’s students put themselves in harm’s way and took up a religious beat in Palestine by actually reporting on the spiritual landscape from the West Bank. Winston recounts the class’s introductory experience in The Chronicle Review:
Then came the moment when the airport van left us inside the Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem’s Old City. Punchy after a 14-hour plane ride, we dragged duffel bags and camera equipment through narrow, cobblestone streets and winding pathways until we found our way to the Lutheran Guest House and sleep. Several hours later, jet lag proved no match for religious authority as a muezzin’s predawn chant led the call to prayer.
Being there made all the difference. The intensive preparation cohered when students, faced with breaking news, drew on multiple skill sets to report and write stories—to practice journalism for real. Students covered protests and demonstrations that could have been dangerous but were crucial for readers worldwide.
We in the magazine world know that not all reporting needs to be serious or completely objective. The nuances of obscure culture can be just as revelatory, thrilling, disheartening, or impactful. In a bit of meta-reporting, Bidoun—a quarterly, experimental-format Middle Eastern arts-and-culture magazine—interviewed two reporters from the long-running educational publication Saudi Aramco World. The publication’s editorial mission is quite different from, say, a newspaper or prime-time broadcast; one of the reporters states that“Aramco World really saw itself as a cultural interface between the Middle East and the United States. I think there was prescience in that, the idea that greater understanding of the people and the issues of the Middle East would be important in the future.”
And speaking of Saudi Aramco World, the January-February 2011 features a very different type of dispatch from the Middle East: light-hearted photography. The magazine spotlights Iraqi photographer Jamal Penjweny’s project “Iraq is Flying” (pictures all over this post), in which he captured everyday Iraqi citizens in mid-air. Penjweny’s images remind the outside world of something we often take for granted: Iraq’s diverse people can transcend their portrayal by mainstream media, even with a permanent backdrop of war.
Bidoun,Chronicle Review, Columbia Journalism Review, Saudi Aramco World
Images courtesy of Jamal Penjweny.
Thursday, January 20, 2011 12:47 PM
This article was originally published at
When I try to figure out why we are still in Afghanistan, though every ounce of logic says we ought to get out, an unexpected conversation I had last year haunts me. Doing neighborhood political canvassing, I knocked on the door of a cheerful man who was just about to tune in to his favorite radio show: Rush Limbaugh. He was kind enough to let me stay and we talked.
Conservatives are often the nicest people -- that’s what I told him -- the ones you’d like to have as neighbors. Then I said: I bet you’re always willing to help your neighbors when they need it. Absolutely, he replied.
So why, I asked, don’t you to want to help out people across town who have the same needs, even if they’re strangers? His answer came instantly: Because I know my neighbors work hard and do all they can to take care of themselves. I don’t know about those people across town.
He didn’t have to say more (though he did). I knew the rest of the story: Why should I give my hard-earned money to the government so they can hand it out to strangers who, for all I know, are good-for-nothing loafers and mooches? I want to be free to decide what to do with my dough and I’ll give it to responsible people who believe in taking care of themselves and their families, just like me. I’ll give my money to the government only to protect us from strangers in distant lands who don’t believe in the sacred rights of the individual and aim to take my freedom and money away.
What a story it is -- a tale of mythic proportions! As an historian of religions, I was trained to appreciate, even marvel at the myths people tell to make sense out of the chaos of their lives. So I can’t help admiring the conservative myth: so simple yet all encompassing, offering clear and easy-to-grasp answers that cut through the everyday complexities besetting us all.
Of course, the answers are far too simplistic, as stupid (in my opinion) as they are dangerous. But I was also trained to be non-judgmental and to admire the power of a myth even when I find it morally abhorrent. And this one is impressive, with its classic good-guys-versus-bad-guys plot line turned into a stark political tale of freedom versus slavery.
White Americans, going back to early colonial times, generally assigned the role of “bad guys” to “savages” lurking in the wilderness beyond the borders of our civilized land. Whether they were redskins, commies, terrorists, or the Taliban, the plot has always remained the same.
Call it the myth of national security -- or, more accurately, national insecurity, since it always tells us who and what to fear. It’s been a mighty (and mighty effective) myth exactly because it lays out with such clarity not just what Americans are against, but also what we are for, what we want to keep safe and secure: the freedom of the individual, especially the freedom to make and keep money.
The President Trapped in a Myth and a War
No politician who aspires to real influence on the national level can afford to reject that myth or even express real doubts about it, at least in public, as Barack Obama surely knows. Not surprisingly, President Obama has embraced the myth in his most important speeches: The bad guys are always out there. (“Scripture tells us that there is evil in the world.”) The good guys have no choice but to fight against the evildoers. (“Force may sometimes be necessary.”)
Because every myth has variants, though, politicians can still make choices. In Obama’s version of the myth, the federal government can be a force for good. So he has a domestic fight on his hands every day against right-wingers who cast the government as an agent of darkness.
He’s not likely to stand a chance of winning that battle if he tries to take on the myth of national security as well. Bill Clinton once put it all-too-accurately: "When people are insecure” -- which is exactly when they rely most on their myths -- “they'd rather have somebody [in the White House] who is strong and wrong than someone who's weak and right."
That’s a truth everyone in the room undoubtedly had in mind back in the fall of 2009 when the top military field commanders came to the White House to talk about Afghanistan. Where else, after all, could our military act out the drama of civilized America staving off the savages? And what better-cast candidates for the role of savages could there be than the Taliban and al-Qaeda?
The generals who run the war also had to confront another vital question: Could they still act out some contemporary version of the myth of good against evil? They’ve given up on the possibility of victory in Afghanistan. So there’s no real chance to go for the classic version of the myth in which the good guys totally vanquish the bad guys.
But since the Cold War era, the myth has demanded only that the good guys don’t lose -- that they merely “contain” the evildoers who “hate our freedoms” (especially our freedom to make and keep money) and will swoop down to destroy us if we give them the chance.
These days the generals must sense that even the containment version of the myth is in trouble. Their predecessors failed to enact it in Vietnam, and though the judgment of history is still out on the Iraq War, it's looking ever more dim, too. If the U.S. loses in Afghanistan, the American public might abandon the myth that justifies the military establishment and its gargantuan budget. As a result, the generals prefer to fight on eternally.
President Obama is trapped at this point. He risks losing both a war and a presidency. Yet if he tries to ease up on the war accelerator, he knows he’ll be pilloried by an alliance of military and right-wing forces as a “cut-and-run” weakling.
If he’s ever tempted to forget that domestic political reality, the mass media are always ready to remind him. Just glance at the 145,000 Google hits on “Obama wimp.” Even his liberal friends at the New York Times have asked in a prominent headline, “Is Obama a Wimp or a Warrior?”
Within the confines of the national insecurity myth, of course, those are the only two options. If pressure is ever going to develop to get U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, progressives will have to offer a new option that actually speaks to Americans.
To Myth or Not to Myth
And there’s the problem. Myths are like scientific theories. No mountain of facts and logic, however convincing, can change believers’ minds -- until a more convincing myth comes along.
A handful of progressive political thinkers are trying to persuade the American left to understand this truth and start offering new political myths (their technical term is “framing narratives”). George Lakoff is probably the best known. His books are bestsellers. His articles on websites invariably go to the top of “most read” and “most emailed” lists. Yet he can’t seem to make much of a dent in the actual policies and practices he’d like to change.
Progressives still shower the public with facts and arguments that are hard to refute, as (in the case of the Afghan War) the American people know. After all, more than 60% of them now tell pollsters that the war was a “mistake.” Yet the war goes on and progressives remain the most marginal of players in the American political game because they don’t have a great myth to offer. In fact, they’ve hardly got any good ones.
Political scientist David Ricci claims there’s not much progressives can do about it, precisely because they already have one very successful myth that prevents them -- oh, the irony! -- from taking the power of myths seriously. The progressive heritage, as he tells it, goes back to the eighteenth century Enlightenment, when the radicals of the day decided that fact and logic were the source of all truth and the only path to peace and freedom.
The Bible and all the other ancient tales bind us to the past, they argued. As a result, humanity was letting dead people lock us into the injustices that bred endless war and suffering. It was time to let human reason open up a better future.
If progressives believe they are myth-less, though, they’re blind to the one mythic plot they share with the rest of America: good against evil. Progressives act out that myth on the political battlefield every day, passionately fighting to defeat right-wing evildoers.
The problem is (and forgive me for repeating an old anti-left cliché of the 1960s, but it’s true here): the progressives’ political myth tells only what they’re against, not what they’re for.
In fact, deep down, most progressives do have a dim sense of their deepest principles: the Enlightenment ideals of peace, freedom, and equality based on the Romantic ideal of what Lakoff calls empathy, extended to all humanity and the biosphere as well.
But progressives don’t wrap their policy prescriptions in mythic language that says clearly, simply, and patriotically what they’re for. As a result, they can’t compete with the myth of national insecurity. They’ve got nothing to offer in its place, which is at least one reason why, despite growing opposition to the Afghan War, they can’t build a strong enough constituency to help -- or force -- Obama to end it.
All they can do is demand that he sacrifice his domestic agenda, and -- no small matter for any politician -- his second-term chances, on the altar of principle. As a result, they end up in a political never-never-land, which might feel good but isn’t going to save a single Afghan life.
No individual, much less a committee, can sit down and create a new myth. Myths grow organically from the life of a community. Progressives would find their myth emerging spontaneously if they just spent a lot more time thinking and talking about their most basic worldview and values, the underlying premises that lead them to hold their political positions with such passion.
A strong progressive myth could make it safer for a president to change course and perhaps save his presidency. Failure to stave off the bad guys destroyed Lyndon Johnson and gravely wounded George W. Bush. I suspect Obama would love to have a great progressive myth keep him from a similar fate. He won’t create it, but he’d probably be delighted to see it appear on the horizon.
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of
Monsters To Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin
. To listen to Timothy MacBain's latest superb TomCast audio interview in which Chernus discusses “us versus them” and “us with them” myths, click here or, to download it to your iPod, here. He can be reached at Chernus@colorado.edu.
Copyright 2011 Ira Chernus
Image by The U.S. Army, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, November 19, 2010 10:25 AM
In what one website is calling the “the most disgusting piece of agitprop you’ll read for a while,” a senior U.S. military official was quoted in The Washington Post as saying that the damage to Afghan land and property from bombings accompanying the escalation of military operations to the highest levels in the history of the U.S. war in that country will have a benefit for the local population:
By making people travel to the district governor's office to submit a claim for damaged property, “in effect, you're connecting the government to the people,” the senior officer said.
Well, that’s one way to look at it, I suppose. But here’s another that comes from retired Air Force lieutenant colonel William Astore via TomDispatch:
Or how about the attitudes of those living in parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan subject to the recent upsurge of U.S. drone strikes? Given the way our robotic wars are written about here, could most Americans imagine what it feels like to be on the receiving end of Zeus-like lightning bolts?
Here’s what one farmer in North Waziristan in the Pakistani tribal borderlands had to say: “I blame the government of Pakistan and the USA… they are responsible for destroying my family. We were living a happy life and I didn’t have any links with the Taliban. My family members were innocent… I wonder, why was I victimized?”
Would an American farmer wonder anything different? Would he not seek vengeance if errant missiles obliterated his family? It’s hard, however, for Americans to grasp the nature of the wars being fought in their name, no less to express sympathy for their victims when they are kept in a state of striking isolation from war’s horrors.
So, there you have it. Differing opinions on the state of things. One that suggests when you blow up someone’s property you are really giving them an opportunity and one that suggests that someone might actually be pissed off if their house were blown up.
Hearts and minds. Hearts and minds.
Source: TomDispatch, The Washington Post
Image by The U.S. Army, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, September 07, 2010 3:12 PM
Last week President Obama gave a speech from the Oval Office announcing the end of “the seven-year American combat mission in Iraq.” Norman Solomon, author of War Made Easy, sees this speech not as a platform to boast of reduced U.S. militancy around the world, but one to promote a policy of perpetual war.
During the presidency of George W. Bush, “the war on terror” served as a rationale for establishing warfare as a perennial necessity. The Obama administration may have shelved the phrase, but the basic underlying rationales are firmly in place. With American troop levels in Afghanistan near one hundred thousand, top U.S. officials are ramping up rhetoric about “taking the fight to” the evildoers.
In addition to the state of endless war Solomon believes the U.S. finds itself in, he was also disturbed by the president’s praise of the Iraq war effort, seeing that praise as vindication for every U.S. war (since Obama originally called that effort “dumb”), writing that “the Oval Office speech declared that every U.S. war—no matter how mendacious or horrific—is worthy of veneration.”
While watching the president talk about the U.S. economy and getting Americans back to work—another key point of the speech—Solomon checked the monetary cost of the war in Afghanistan—more than $329 billion—and wondered what has changed in 40 years since George Wald, a Nobel Prize-winning biologist, said, “Our government has become preoccupied with death, with the business of killing and being killed.” “If, nine years after 9/11, we are supposed to believe that U.S. forces can now ‘start’ taking the fight to ‘the terrorists,’” Solomon writes, “this is truly war without end.”
Image by Poldavo (Alex), licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, July 27, 2010 9:55 AM
From an interview with WikiLeaks volunteer Jacob Appelbaum:
The people of Afghanistan are not shocked by this information. Nobody needs to tell them what the conditions are like on the ground. They don't have reports with this level of specificity; rather they live with everyday terror and fear.
Source: Boing Boing
Monday, July 26, 2010 4:47 PM
This article was originally published by ProPublica.
This morning, The New York Times, England’s The Guardian and Germany’s Der Spiegel published reports on what’s been termed the “War Logs”—nearly 92,000 documents about the war in Afghanistan made public by WikiLeaks. To put the leaked documents in context, we pulled together some of the best, past reporting on the main themes in the reports.
Pakistan’s influence on Afghanistan The documents suggest that Pakistan’s intelligence service has been aiding the Taliban and the Afghan insurgency. (See some of the documents here.) At the heart of this debate is the question Dexter Filkins posed in his Pulitzer-Prize winning coverage in late 2007: “Whose side is Pakistan really on?”
Much of the reporting on this issue centers on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, where Taliban warlords and Al Qaeda have a strong base. A “Frontline” documentary from 2006 looked at those groups’ presence in the Waziristan region, and how the Taliban there received assistance from the Pakistan intelligence service. Later, The New York Times’ David Rohde detailed the inner workings of the Taliban in the region in his account of his kidnapping in 2009, when he was taken over the border from Afghanistan to Pakistan. Further south in Pakistan, the Taliban has grown in Quetta, where, as Carlotta Gall wrote in 2007, there were signs that “Pakistani authorities are encouraging the insurgents, if not sponsoring them.”
For more analysis, in a 2008 Q&A with Harpers, the Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid explained that the roots of Pakistan’s covert support for the Taliban solidified when the U.S. focused on hunting down Al Qaeda after Sept. 11, leaving the Taliban free to develop in Pakistan. Now, the New Yorker’s Steve Coll says Pakistan’s military believes that Islamic militias could be “useful proxies to ward off a perceived existential threat from India.”
One particular member of Pakistan’s intelligence agency frequently appeared in the WikiLeaks documents. According to the documents, the agency’s former director, Hamid Gul, has strong connections with the Taliban and has been supporting the Afghan insurgency. The Washington Post’s Candace Rondeaux profiled Gul last year, when he was implicated in the bombings in Mumbai.
From the beginning of the war, press reports have drawn attention to civilian deaths resulting from U.S. and NATO strikes in Afghanistan. One Washington Post report from October 2001 noted growing concern among Afghans over errant airstrikes, saying locals were beginning to view Americans as just another in the long line of invaders that had come through the country.
Just months later, The New York Times reported that American attacks had already killed hundreds, if not thousands, of Afghan civilians. The story line was much the same in 2007, when the Times reported that civilian deaths were causing divisions within NATO and undermining support for the Afghan government. The reports range far and wide, but below is a sampling of some of the most devastating attacks in recent years.
- In April 2007, Marines opened fire on unarmed civilians and killed 10 people, wounding more than 30 others. The Washington Post reported it was “one of the largest” civilian death tolls since the war had begun.
- In August 2008, the Post noted that increased reliance on airstrikes had led to more civilian deaths, including one attack that killed at least 90 innocent Afghans.
- In an incident highlighted in the Times’ coverage of the WikiLeaks documents, NATO bombs targeted a couple of hijacked fuel tankers and killed more than 100 people in Kunduz Province last September. At the time, The Washington Post reported that at least a dozen of the victims were civilians. The leaked documents show the military concluded the strike had killed 56 people, none of them insurgents.
- Today, the Times reported that a NATO strike in Helmand Province killed 52 people, according to Afghan officials. American military officials did not deny the report, but said it was premature to reach any conclusions.
The Times reports that the leaked documents also include details on secret commando raids, citing notable successes but also increased civilian casualties from the operations. In February of last year, the paper detailed just such a raid, in which bearded American and Afghan forces kicked open the door to one man’s house. The story recounts how Syed Mohammed was taken from his home by the commandos and interrogated for several hours before being released:
“When he returned home, Mr. Mohammed said, he went next door to his son’s house, only to find that most of his family had been killed: the son, Nurallah, and his pregnant wife and two of his sons, Abdul Basit, age 1, and Mohammed, 2. Only Mr. Mohammed’s 4-year-old grandson, Zarqawi, survived.”
A month later, the Times was reporting that the military had temporarily halted such raids after media coverage and a U.N. report that singled out the secret missions for contributing to a rising civilian death toll.
The Times says the documents show that drone aircraft have not been as “impressive” as they are typically portrayed. “Some crash or collide, forcing American troops to undertake risky retrieval missions before the Taliban can claim the drone’s weaponry,” the Times writes. The documents mention one situation of a drone that went “rogue” and eventually had to be shot down by a fighter jet before it crossed out of Afghan territory.
The drones have become an increasingly popular tool for the military. Because they’re operated off-site, in theory they reduce casualties for U.S. troops. NPR and “60 Minutes” each went inside the Nevada headquarters of the Army’s drone operations, where pilots use remote controls to fly and monitor the drones. They use satellites and a camera mounted inside to be the eyes of the drone, which NPR said was like “seeing the world through a soda straw.”
The drones are gaining popularity not only with the Army, but with the CIA as well. The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer looked at the how the CIA’s increased dependence on drones represent “a radically new and geographically unbounded use of state-sanctioned lethal force.”
Image by the Department of Defense.
Tuesday, June 29, 2010 8:45 AM
Photojournalist Damon Winter won a Pulitzer for his photos of Barack Obama on the campaign trail. Now he's turned his attention and considerable talent to the daunting task of documenting a year in the life of the First Battalion, 87th Infantry of the 10th Mountain Division in northern Afghanistan. The first photo and video installments of "A Year at War" are up at the New York Times website. Everything is embedded in an elegant player. All you have to do is load the page and you're thrust into the emotional lives of what seem to be mostly reluctant soldiers. It's the portrayal of that reluctance that makes the project so unique. You can get a feel for Winter's work at the New York TimesLens blog, where his photos of the battallion's last tearful and uncertain hours before deployment are collected in a slideshow. There's also an interview with Winter. Here's an excerpt:
Q: When there was a draft, like in the Vietnam War, a lot of people knew soldiers who were fighting. But now, because it is a professional army, the pain of war is less spread out. Fewer people know the people fighting.
A: It is a challenge to cut through the uniform and the conceptions about what it’s like to be a solider and what it’s like to serve in the military. We have spent so much time with them. We want to convey that sense that each person, while part of this huge machine, is an individual, leaving wives, children and loved ones behind, and making a really tough life decision to go spend a year at war.
Monday, June 28, 2010 11:14 AM
This piece was originally published by TomDispatch.
Less than a year ago, General David Petraeus saluted smartly and pledged his loyal support for President Obama’s decision to start withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan in July 2011. In December, when Obama decided (for the second time in 2009) to add tens of thousands of additional American forces to the war, he also slapped an 18-month deadline on the military to turn the situation around and begin handing security over to the bedraggled Afghan National Army and police. Speaking to the nation from West Point, Obama said that he’d ordered American forces to start withdrawing from Afghanistan at that time.
Here’s the exchange, between Obama, Petraeus, and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as reported by Jonathan Alter in his new book, The Promise: President Obama, Year One:
OBAMA: "I want you to be honest with me. You can do this in 18 months?"
PETRAEUS: "Sir, I'm confident we can train and hand over to the ANA [Afghan National Army] in that time frame."
OBAMA: "If you can't do the things you say you can in 18 months, then no one is going to suggest we stay, right?"
PETRAEUS: "Yes, sir, in agreement."
MULLEN: "Yes, sir."
That seems unequivocal, doesn’t it? Vice President Joe Biden, famously dissed as Joe Bite-Me by one of the now-disgraced aides of General Stanley McChrystal in the Rolling Stone profile that got him fired, seems to think so. Said Biden, again according to Alter: “In July of 2011 you're going to see a whole lot of people moving out. Bet on it.”
In the Alice-in-Wonderland world of the U.S. military, however, things are rarely what they seem. Petraeus, the Centcom commander “demoted” in order to replace McChrystal as U.S. war commander in Afghanistan, seems to be having second thoughts about what will happen next July—a \nd those second thoughts are being echoed and amplified by a phalanx of hawks, neoconservatives, and spokesmen for the counterinsurgency (COIN) cult, including Henry Kissinger, the Heritage Foundation, and the editorial pages of the Washington Post. Chiming in, too, are the lock-step members of the Republican caucus on Capitol Hill, led by Senator John McCain.
In testimony before Congress just last week, Petraeus chose his words carefully, but clearly wasn’t buying the notion that the July deadline means much, nor did he put significant stock in the fact that President Obama has ordered a top-to-bottom review of Afghan policy in December. According to the White House, that review will be a make-or-break assessment of whether the Pentagon is making any progress in the nine-year-long conflict against the Taliban.
In his recent Senate testimony—before he fainted, and afterwards—Petraeus minimized the significance of the December review and cavalierly declared that he “would not make too much of it.” Pressed by McCain, the general flouted Biden’s view by claiming that the deadline is a date “when a process begins [and] not the date when the U.S. heads for the exits.”
The Right’s Marching Orders for the President
Petraeus’s defiant declaration that he wasn’t putting much stock in the president's intending to hold the military command accountable for its failure in Afghanistan next December earned him an instant rebuke from the White House. Now, that same Petraeus is in charge.
The dispute over the meaning of July 2011 is, and will remain, at the very heart of the divisions within the Obama administration over Afghan policy.
Last December, in that West Point speech, Obama tried to split the difference, giving the generals what they wanted—a lot more troops—but fixing a date for the start of a withdrawal. It was hardly a courageous decision. Under intense pressure from Petraeus, McChrystal, and the GOP, Obama assented to the addition of 30,000 U.S. troops, ignoring the fact that McChrystal’s unseemly lobbying for the escalation amounted to a Douglas MacArthur-like defiance of the primacy of civilian control of the military. (Indeed, after a speech McChrystal gave in London insouciantly rejecting Biden’s scaled-down approach to the war, Obama summoned the runaway general to a tarmac outside Copenhagen and read him the riot act in Air Force One.)
If Obama’s Afghan decision was a cave-in to the brass and a potential generals’ revolt, the president also added that kicker of a deadline to the mix, not only placating his political base and minimizing Democratic unhappiness in Congress, but creating a trap of sorts for Petraeus and McChrystal. The message was clear enough: deliver the goods, and fast, or we’re heading out, whether the job is finished or not.
Since then, Petraeus and McChrystal—backed by their chief enabler, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, a Republican holdover appointed to his position by George W. Bush—took every chance they could to downplay and scoff at the deadline.
By appointing Petraeus last Wednesday, Obama took the easy way out of the crisis created by McChrystal’s shocking comments in Rolling Stone. It might not be inappropriate to quote that prescient British expert on Afghan policy, Peter Townsend, who said of the appointment: “Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.”
On the other hand, Petraeus is not simply another McChrystal. While McChrystal implemented COIN doctrine, mixing in his obsession with “kinetic operations” by U.S. Special Forces, Petraeus literally wrote the book—namely, The U.S Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual.
If the COIN cult has a guru (whom all obey unquestioningly), it’s Petraeus. The aura that surrounds him, especially among the chattering classes of the Washington punditocracy, is palpable, and he has a vast well of support among Republicans and assorted right-wingers on Capitol Hill, including the Holy Trinity: John McCain, Lindsay Graham, and Joe Lieberman. Not surprisingly, there have been frequent mentions of Petraeus as a candidate for the GOP nomination for president in 2012, although Obama’s deft selection of Petraeus seems, once and for all, to have ruled out that option, since the general will be very busy on the other side of the globe for quite a while.
Even before the announcement that Petraeus had the job, the right’s mighty Wurlitzer had begun to blast out its critique of the supposedly pernicious effects of the July deadline. The Heritage Foundation, in an official statement, proclaimed: “The artificial Afghanistan withdrawal deadline has obviously caused some of our military leaders to question our strategy in Afghanistan... We don’t need an artificial timeline for withdrawal. We need a strategy for victory.”
Writing in the Washington Post on June 24, Henry Kissinger cleared his throat and harrumphed: “The central premise [of Obama’s strategy] is that, at some early point, the United States will be able to turn over security responsibilities to an Afghan government and national army whose writ is running across the entire country. This turnover is to begin next summer. Neither the premise nor the deadline is realistic... Artificial deadlines should be abandoned.”
And the Post itself, in the latest of a long-running series of post-9/11 hawkish editorials, gave Obama his marching orders: “He… should clarify what his July 2011 deadline means. Is it the moment when ‘you are going to see a whole lot of people moving out,’ as Vice President Biden has said, or ‘the point at which a process begins… at a rate to be determined by conditions at the time,’ as General Petraeus testified? We hope that the appointment of General Petraeus means the president’s acceptance of the general’s standard.”
Is the COIN Cult Ascendant?
It’s too early to say whether Obama’s decision to name Petraeus to replace his protégé McChrystal carries any real significance when it comes to the evolution of his Afghan war policy. The McChrystal crisis erupted so quickly that Obama had no time to carefully consider who might replace him and Petraeus undoubtedly seemed like the obvious choice, if the point was to minimize the domestic political risks involved.
Still, it’s worrying. Petraeus’s COIN policy logically demands a decade-long war, involving labor-intensive (and military-centric) nation-building, waged village by village and valley by valley, at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars and countless U.S., NATO, and Afghan casualties, including civilians. That idea doesn’t in the least square with the idea that significant numbers of troops will start leaving Afghanistan next summer. Indeed, Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer with long experience in the Middle East and South Asia, who headed Obama’s first Afghan policy review in February 2009, told me (for an article in Rolling Stone last month) that it’s not inconceivable the military will ask for even more troops, not agree to fewer, next year.
The Post is right, however, that Obama needs to grapple seriously with the deep divisions in his administration. Having ousted one rebellious general, the president now has little choice but to confront—or cave in to—the entire COIN cult, including its guru.
If Obama decides to take them on, he’ll have the support of many traditionalists in the U.S. armed forces who reject the cult’s preaching. Above all, his key ally is bound to be those pesky facts on the ground.
Afghanistan is the place where theories of warfare go to die, and if the COIN theory isn’t dead yet, it’s utterly failed so far to prove itself. The vaunted February offensive into the dusty hamlet of Marja in Helmand province has unraveled. The offensive into Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban and a seething tangle of tribal and religious factions, once touted as the potential turning point of the entire war, has been postponed indefinitely. After nine years, the Pentagon has little to show for its efforts, except ever-rising casualties and money spent.
Perhaps Obama is still counting on U.S. soldiers to reverse the Taliban’s momentum and win the war, even though administration officials have repeatedly rejected the notion that Afghanistan can be won militarily. David Petraeus or no, the reality is that the war will end with a political settlement involving President Karzai’s government, various Afghan warlords and power brokers, the remnants of the old Northern Alliance, the Taliban, and the Taliban’s sponsors in Pakistan.
Making all that work and winning the support of Afghanistan’s neighbors—including India, Iran, and Russia—will be exceedingly hard. If Obama’s diplomats managed to pull it off, the Afghanistan that America left behind might be modestly stable. On the other hand, it won’t be pretty to look at it. It will be a decentralized mess, an uneasy balance between enlightened Afghans and benighted, Islamic fundamentalist ones, and no doubt many future political disagreements will be settled not in conference rooms but in gun battles. Three things it won’t be: It won’t be Switzerland. It won’t be a base for Al Qaeda. And it won’t be host to tens of thousands of U.S. and NATO troops.
The only silver lining in the Petraeus cloud is that the general has close ties to the military in Pakistan who slyly accept U.S. aid while funneling support to the insurgency in Afghanistan. If Obama decides to pursue a political and diplomatic solution between now and next July, Petraeus’s Pakistan connection would be useful indeed. Time, however, is running out.
Robert Dreyfuss is an independent journalist in the Washington, D.C., area. He is a contributing editor at the Nation magazine, and a frequent contributor to Rolling Stone and Mother Jones. His blog, The Dreyfuss Report, appears at the Nation’s website. His book, Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam, was published by Henry Holt/Metropolitan Books in 2005. Listen to Dreyfuss in the latest TomCast audio interview discussing Obama's war with the military by clicking here, or to download to your iPod, here.
Copyright 2010 Robert Dreyfuss
Image by the Department of Defense.
Thursday, May 13, 2010 1:07 PM
In the new issue of New Letters, there is an interview with poet Maggie Anderson. In it, she offers a thoughtful take on the "war on terror":
I am sickened by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the on-going war against the chimera, terror, which is a rhetorical formulation of a war against feeling. 'Terror' is not an enemy; it is a feeling, or a psychological state. To declare 'war on terror,' as all poets know, is to declare war on disturbing and perfectly understandable (given the historical circumstances) feelings in ourselves. This language short circuits both grief and rage, and it heightens fear, as I believe it is meant to do.
Source: New Letters (Interview not yet available online)
Thursday, April 29, 2010 3:16 PM
I just cracked War, the new book on the war in Afghanistan by the writer Sebastian Junger. The author followed a single platoon for 15 months (he also collaborated on Restrepo, a documentary of the platoon). I've read a lot of books like this, and each one includes a short section in the opening pages that is sort of a laundry list of reasons a person joins the U.S. military. I found Junger’s version particularily compelling:
A gunner in Weapons Squad named Jones claims he made thousands of dollars selling drugs before joining the Army to avoid getting killed on the streets of Reno ... Vaughn was eleven years old when 9/11 happened and decided right then and there to join the U.S. Army ... Danforth was forty-two years old and had joined the year before because he was bored; the others called him Old Man and asked a lot of joking questions about Vietnam ... There was a sergeant whose father was currently serving in Iraq and had nearly been killed by a roadside bomb.
Thursday, April 29, 2010 2:55 PM
Farmers in the developing world use Fair Trade certification as a gateway to an international market of conscientious consumers. For shoppers in wealthy countries, it’s an educational tool: describing why fair trade exists is the quickest critique of a draconian “free trade” system.
The next frontier for Fair Trade is conflict zones. “UNICEF says that half of the children who die before their fifth birthday also lives in conflict-affected countries and ‘failed states,’ as do half of all young children not in primary school.” reports Ethical Consumer. “Developing trust-based structures can help to restore social stability, and selling fairly traded products ... can help to raise awareness of conflict situations overseas.”
Consider Afghanistan. No, we’re not talking Fair Trade opium. “Some people in the United Kingdom dried fruit business we’ve spoken to have been really excited about seeing Afghan raisins come back,” says Kate Sebag of the justice-minded import company Tropical Wholefoods. “With the volumes that Afghanistan could produce, we could see whole communities self-sufficient in terms of building schools and rebuilding infrastructure.”
Advocates point to Palestinian olive oil as a case study of all the things that can go right and wrong. American and European activists have been selling olive oil sourced from the olive groves of the West Bank for more than a decade. It only won certification last year. Even with certification, exports are limited along with the movement of Palestinians, who struggle to make any trip that involves passage through Israel's travel restrictions and infinite checkpoints.
Here, from Ethical Consumer, are a few more potential trade opportunities in conflict zones around the world:
Gourmet coffee, sold in Sainsburys, is now being sourced from war-torn regions on the border with Rwanda where until now most coffee has been smuggled across Lake Kuvu, resulting in up to a thousand deaths a year.
Tropical Wholefoods sells Fairtrade certified dried apricots and roasted kernels from the precarious North. Apricot kernel shells and oil also appear in Boots Fairtrade and Neal’s Yard beauty products.
Several importers are working on organic and fair trade standards with semi-nomadic communities where women supplement family incomes by collecting frankincense resin from desert trees. “Frankincense and myrrh represent one of the greatest challenges in our supply chain as this is not an easy place to visit,” says Louise Green of Neal’s Yard, which is taking a keen interest.
Source: Ethical Consumer
Tuesday, April 27, 2010 3:22 PM
From a report published in the Pakistani daily newspaper Dawn:
On walls around Afghanistan's scrappy capital, where million-dollar mansions line rutted roads, anonymous graffiti artists are daubing their disapproving take on the devastating cost of war.
Styled after the anonymous British vandal-artist Banksy, Kabul's streetwise stealth stencillers go by the moniker “Talibanksy”, a reference to the Taliban who have been waging war in Afghanistan for almost nine years.
The street art forms a commentary on the cost in blood and treasure of the war, which has brought 126,000 US and Nato troops to Afghanistan and kills about 2,000 Afghan civilians a year, according to the UN.
Black, spray-painted silhouettes of soldiers and dollar signs, poppies, helicopters and tanks, and children running hand-in-hand began appearing in downtown Kabul a few months ago.
Some show the shadow of a helmeted soldier holding an assault rifle, inside a red circle with a line through it. Others have a silhouetted gun-toting trooper and a dollar sign joined by an equals symbol.
Or simply the words: Cost Of War.
...The people behind the anti-war graffiti call themselves Combat Communications, and claim to be “a small anonymous group of international artists founded last year with the sole aim of advocating/promoting free expression”.
According to a statement, they wish to remain anonymous and call their work “social and politically driven graphics”.
Here's a video of the collective at work on the streets of Kabul:
(Thanks, Animal New York.)
Tuesday, March 30, 2010 3:53 PM
A disturbing report on juvenile detainees in Afghanistan from Gareth Porter at Inter Press Service:
Nearly two of every three male juveniles arrested in Afghanistan are physically abused, according to a study based on interviews with 40 percent of all those now incarcerated in the country's juvenile justice system.
The study, carried out by U.S. defense attorney Kimberly Motley for the international children's rights organization Terre des Hommes, reveals a justice system that subjects juveniles, many of whom are already innocent victims, to torture, forced confessions and blatant violation of their rights in court.
The author personally interviewed 250 of the 600 juveniles in jails and rehabilitation centres across the country, including half the 80 girls and 40 percent of the 520 boys, as well as 98 professionals working in the system.
...Virtually all the male juveniles said the police beatings were aimed at forcing them to sign a confession. They said they had signed either while being beaten or threatened with being beaten, and that the confessions were then used to convict them.
Source: Inter Press Service
Friday, March 12, 2010 12:06 PM
Afghans have watched their loved ones and neighbors die. They've seen Afghan fighters die, too. Being so close to violence and death is a trauma we don't talk about enough. And there’s one kind of trauma that we never talk about at all: What it is like to watch a foreign soldier die on the street in front of your house? Golnar Motevalli—a Reuters reporter covering the Afghanistan war—filed a chilling report this week from Marjah called Witness: Battlefield dead haunt U.S. Marines and Afghans alike. In it, she reports the death of Corporal Jacob Turbett, killed by a Taliban bullet that entered his heart.
Medics had carried Turbett from the bank of dirt he was standing on, where the bullet ricocheted and entered his chest, laid him out on the dusty ground of a small Afghan home, and frantically tried to resuscitate him. Above them T-shirts and woolen sweaters on washing lines flapped in the breeze.
Eventually a tiny girl in a pink dress stepped out from behind a rickety wooden door which was draped in a dirty black curtain, her wizened, bearded father clutching her hand and ushering her to the toilet.
The girl retreated back into the room, oblivious to Turbett's losing battle for his life. Moments later, the 21-year-old from Canton, Michigan, was dead.
Medic David Walden stood up and walked away. As the child cried from inside the room, Walden wept in silence outside. His cheeks were damp with tears and gleamed under the early afternoon sun. His eyes were hidden behind ballistic sunglasses.
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Thursday, March 11, 2010 11:09 AM
This quote is lifted from an article by New York Times war correspondent Dexter Filkins, writing in The New Republic. Filkins dismisses the unnamed official's dismal take on Afghanistan war policy: “Things aren't that desperate.” After reading his piece, The American Awakening, I'm having a hard time locating the source of his optimism.
The image above is part of the new Thousand Yard Stare war postcard series. If you want to turn it in to a postcard you can do so from the Utne Reader Flickr page.
Source: The New Republic
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Image by the Department of Defense and funded by your tax dollars.
Thursday, February 25, 2010 3:16 PM
The always-controversial cartoonist, reporter, and author Ted Rall wants to go back to Afghanistan. After covering the U.S. invasion in 2001 for the Village Voice and KFI Radio, Rall wrote the books To Afghanistan and Back and Silk Road to Ruin. Now, Rall wants to return to Afghanistan to cover the voices of the Afghan people in a style he compares to Joe Sacco’s cartoon-reporting. This time, he wants his readers, rather than major media outlets, to pay it.
To fund his trip, Rall started a Kickstarter project, asking fans help cover his expenses with contributions of $10 or more. In a podcast interview with Kickstarter board member Andy Baio, Rall talks about why independent projects like his so necessary. Most reporters in Afghanistan, according to Rall, “have too much money, and they get parachuted into a place that they don’t know anything about. But also, they’re idiots.”
Friday, February 12, 2010 11:04 AM
The winner of the U.S. Documentary Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival was Restrepo, a feature-length documentary that chronicles the deployment of a platoon of U.S. soldiers to Afghanistan's Korengal Valley. From the filmmakers: “This is an entirely experiential film. Our cameras never leave the valley, we don’t interview generals or diplomats. Our only goal is to make you feel as though you have just done a 90-minute deployment. This is war, full stop. The conclusions are up to you. Our intention was to capture the experience of combat, boredom and fear through the eyes of the soldiers themselves.”
Here’s the trailer…
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Thursday, January 07, 2010 2:29 PM
In 1940, eight pacifists studying at Union Theological Seminary refused the exemption from military service granted them as seminarians and flat out refused conscription into World War II. In a statement released shortly before the young men were sent to jail, they wrote: “If we register, even as conscientious objectors, we are becoming part of the act.”
Seventy years later Serene Jones, the president of Union Theological Seminary, is calling on the military to allow enlisted women and men who do not reject war outright the freedom to refuse a particular war on grounds of religion or conscience. Jones, in the statement she co-authored with Rita Nakashima-Brock and Gabriella Lettini and published at Religion Dispatches, first skewers Obama's Nobel acceptance speech:
Most debates about both Iraq and Afghanistan have focused on whether or not they are winnable. The president’s speech in Oslo, however, raised the bar to moral grounds. He tried to defend his decision to escalate Afghanistan by contrasting the nonviolent principles of previous Nobel laureates, Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., with the principles of just war that have informed the Nuremberg Principles and Geneva Conventions, the current gold standards for leaders of nations conducting wars. His defense in the abstract was eloquent. In its practical application to Afghanistan, it was shallow and inept.
Meanwhile, members of the military awaiting deployment to one of America's wars must go or face punishment. “Soldiers now deploying to both wars are denied the choice of conscience that the president articulated in accepting his Peace Prize,” Jones and her co-authors write. “The rights of Conscientious Objection are currently too narrow to protect the moral conscience of soldiers. To claim this formal status, you have to show that, on religious or ethical grounds, you object to ‘war in any form.’”
It's not just the moral integrity of our soldiers at stake: “When we punish soldiers who heed their moral compasses, we deny them religious freedom, and our democracy is threatened. Not only is the integrity of our military compromised; we break the moral backbone of our servicemen and women. When this happens, the international just peace community, which the president so eloquently valorized in Oslo, is weakened. And we trivialize our broader commitment to morally responsible public life.”
The image above is of pacifist David Dellinger, one of the Union Theological students who refused to serve in World War II.
Source: Religion Dispatches
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Tuesday, January 05, 2010 1:55 PM
Over at his blog, The Best Defense, former Washington Post correspondent Tom Rick's lauds a policy paper on military intelligence strategy in Afghanistan. If you want to read the paper, start with Ricks's post. All the intel talk is just fine but what got me was this little parable, which Ricks highlights:
An NGO wanting to build a water well in a village may learn, as we recently did, about some of the surprising risks encountered by others who have attempted the same project. For instance, a foreign-funded well constructed in the center of a village in southern Afghanistan was destroyed—not by the Taliban—but by the village's women. Before, the women had to walk a long distance to draw water from a river, but this was exactly what they wanted. The establishment of a village well deprived them of their only opportunity to gather socially with other women.
Source: The Best Defense
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Image by the Department of Defense.
Monday, December 28, 2009 4:30 PM
Every month, Ilona Meagher, author of Moving A Nation to Care: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and America's Returning Troops, posts a collection of “combat clips”—essentially a stack of statistics reported in the mainstream media but buried by the daily barrage of news and chatter. The stats, collected at her blog, PTSD Combat: Winning the War Within, cover a lot of ground, from suicides to face transplants, but I wanted to pull out some numbers relating to women in the military:
orldwide, women make up about 14 percent of U.S. active-duty forces - the largest percentage in the country's history.
There are an estimated 6,500 homeless female veterans on any given night — about 5 percent of the total homeless veterans population. (Associated Press)
The nonprofit group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America says one-third of women were sexually harassed while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Philadelphia Enquirer)
(Thanks, War and Peace)
Source: PTSD Combat: Winning the War Within
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Wednesday, December 23, 2009 2:55 PM
Editor's Note: "Excuse the gloom in the holiday season," writes Tom Engelhardt in the latest essay at his site, TomDispatch. The gloom is thick as he revisits the history of his site in his final post of 2009. It's a look back at a decade of war in Afghanistan. There’s a gravity to Engelhardt’s essay that is missing from much of the Afghanistan coverage in the mainstream media. Obama’s surge is being spun as the beginning of the end and at least 58% of the American public is buying that narrative. Engelhardt is not. He sees endless war and no end in sight for TomDispatch, his outlet for reportage and essays that chip away, week after week, at the arrogance and tragedy of empire. Here’s an excerpt from his essay, In Nightmares Begin Responsibilities:
Our endless wars are nightmares ... If only we could wake up. I was reminded of our strange dream-state recently when I reread the article that sparked the creation of what became TomDispatch. I first stumbled across it in the fall of 2001, after the Towers came down in my hometown, after that acrid smell of burning made its way to my neighborhood and into everything, after I traveled to “Ground Zero” (as it was already being called) to view those vast otherworldly shards of destruction via nearby side streets ... In late October 2001, a friend sent me a piece by an Afghan-American living in California that spurred me to modest action.
His name was Tamim Ansary and he posted it online on September 16th, just five days after the attacks on New York and Washington, having listened to right-wing talk radio rev up to an instant fever pitch about “bombing Afghanistan back to the stone age.” His piece went viral and finally reached … by email sometime in October after the Bush administration had begun the bombing campaign in Afghanistan that preceded its invasion-by-proxy of that country.
Ansary wrote “as one who hates the Taliban and Osama Bin Laden,” and yet his piece was a desperate warning against the American war to come. He wrote with passion and conviction, with knowledge of Afghanistan and a kind of imagery that was otherwise not then part of our American world:
“We come now to the question of bombing Afghanistan back to the Stone Age. Trouble is, that's been done. The Soviets took care of it already. Make the Afghans suffer? They're already suffering. Level their houses? Done. Turn their schools into piles of rubble? Done. Eradicate their hospitals? Done. Destroy their infrastructure? Cut them off from medicine and health care? Too late. Someone already did all that. New bombs would only stir the rubble of earlier bombs. Would they at least get the Taliban? Not likely.”
It was the image of our bombs only “stirring the rubble” that stunned me. I had been reading the papers for weeks and had seen nothing like it. It seemed to catch the forgotten nightmare of the Afghan past as well as the nightmare to come at a moment when the only nightmare on the American mind was our own. Our own chosen imagery was then playing out in repeated public rites in which we hailed ourselves as the planet’s greatest victims, survivors, and dominators, while leaving no roles for others in our about-to-be-global drama—except, of course, for greatest Evildoer (which Osama bin Laden filled magnificently). It wasn’t only our foreign policy that was switching onto the “unilateral” track, so was our imagery.
Small wonder, then, that the strangeness of that single image moved me to gather the email addresses of a small group of friends and relatives, copy the piece into an email, add a note above it indicating that it was a must-read, and with that modest gesture, quite unbeknownst to me, launch TomDispatch.com.
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Monday, December 21, 2009 3:33 PM
Remember when the U.S. military first started talking about their "smart bombs"? It was as though these bombs could float into the bad guy's living room, slide up next to him on his couch, and end his life without so much as a tilted picture frame as evidence. It seemed to make supporting war easier. Suddenly war was smarter.
There's a new fad in smart warfare, and it's called "counterinsurgency." In a piece on the "cult of counterinsurgency" for The New Republic, Michael Crowley quotes from an Army manual: "Counterinsurgency is not just thinking man’s warfare—it is the graduate level of war."
This "thinking man's warfare" was at the heart of the surge in Iraq and is central to Obama's surge in Afghanistan. The result: There has been excessive network news face time for America's counterinsurgency experts. Crowley writes about a recent appearance by Lt. Colonel John Nagl of the Center for New American Security on Rachel Maddow's show:
Had someone like Bill Kristol given that same assessment of Obama’s speech, Maddow might have tarred him as a bloodthirsty proponent of endless war. Which is why Nagl is one of the administration’s most important allies as it tries to sell the United States on a renewed commitment to Afghanistan.
...With the authority of a man who has worn a uniform in combat, and the intellectual heft of a Rhodes Scholar, he has helped to persuade many liberals that pursuing a counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan is the only viable path to success.
Michael Cohen of the New America Foundation isn't buying it. He tells The New Republic, "Even the Iraq surge caused a dramatic increase in civilian casualties from airstrikes."
Most Americans never hear about the collateral damage from the bombings that accompanied the surge of ground troops in Iraq. In fact, the only thing most people ever hear from counterinsurgency boosters is that the surge was a success in Iraq .
"Some contrarian military thinkers that the story is far more complicated," writes Crowley. "It's not clear that the Sunnis needed our encouragement to turn on Al Qaeda, for instance, and ethnic cleansing may have burned itself out." These holes in the success-of-the-surge narrative have been largely ignored in the national discussion about Obama's strategy in Afghanistan.
One military man who isn't preaching the gospel of counterinsurgency is Colonel Gian Gentile, who tells The New Republic: "I think history shows that if a nation is going to try this kind of military method—population-centric counterinsurgency, which is also nation building—it doesn’t happen in a couple of years. It’s a generational commitment."
If there is a generational commitment to anything, it's to a future of counterinsurgent warfare around the globe. Exhibit A: the latest Pentagon budget, which, Crowley writes, shifts "billions of dollars away from high-tech weapons systems designed for fighting a great power like China, toward equipment like aerial drones and armored personnel carriers."
Colonel Gentile is adamant: This shift is a mistake. "Sometimes strategy demands restraint instead of military adventures," he writes at the Foreign Policy website. "As much as we want to define populations as ... subject to our manipulation and management ... they are not to be 'changed' for the better at the barrel of an American gun."
Source: The New Republic (article not yet available online), Foreign Policy
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Image by the Department of Defense.
Wednesday, December 16, 2009 4:12 PM
I don’t know who deputized Christian Bleuer to police the reporting coming out of Afghanistan, but I approve. Bleuer, a researcher at The Australian National University’s Centre for Arab and Islamic studies, has constructed a fierce critique in the form of a sharp and moderately humble list of 29 Tips for Bad Writing on Afghanistan. It’s published at his blog, Ghosts of Alexander. The list is a critical tutorial for reporter and armchair media critic alike. Here is just a taste:
Use exoticisms that make you sound really informed. Something like “Pashtunwali,” “Deobandi,” “badal,” “arbakai,” “jirga,” “shura,” etc… You don’t understand these terms in their social context. But no worries, neither does your reader.
Selectively quote an expert. You could (and this is totally, totally fictional) interview a professor who specializes in some aspect of Afghanistan for 45 minutes and then use a sub-10 second clip that confirms your pre-set agenda even though they said about a dozen other things in the same interview that contradict your agenda. Don’t worry, professors are not media- or internet-savvy enough to find a way to publicly shame you in justified retaliation.
Report from a one week embed that consists of a trip by Blackhawk helicopter to a secure [Forward Operating Base] and then talk about what it’s “really like” in a combat zone.
Totally ignore all of the literature on Afghanistan and then complain that nobody knows anything about something that is actually somewhat well researched. This allows you to fill an imaginary void with your bad analysis and then claim that it’s original and important.
Don’t go back and retroactively scold yourself for violating your own advice. Only bloggers will report the fact that your advice contradicts your past actions.
Source: Ghosts of Alexander
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Image by sskennel, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, December 16, 2009 2:51 PM
Iraqi-born photojournalist and reporter Ghaith Abdul-Ahad was released today after being captured last week by armed men in Afghanistan. The happy news of his release (along with two Afghan journalists who requested anonymity) is an opportunity to highlight this man's spectacular work. He's been taking pictures and writing for The Guardian since the earliest days of the occupation in Iraq. His work was featured in Unembedded, a book of Iraq war photographs by photographers who risked all to venture out into Baghdad and other Iraqi cities to document life in a country quaking with violence.
On the fifth anniversary of the war in Iraq, Abdul-Ahad produced a series of videos, including a profound portrait of Iraq's lost generation.
Last month, the photojournalism site Foto8 posted a short video interview with Abdul-Ahad. In it, he discusses how reporting from Afghanistan differs from reporting from his home country:
In an interview with the Arab media portal Menassat, Abdul-Ahad addressed what he sees as the false categorizing of war journalists into locals and foreigners: "I think there is one kind of journalist. I don't believe in this whole division between local journalists and foreigners. In theory, we should all have the same understanding of the stories. I always give the example of my two biggest heroes: Ryszard Kapuscinski who was Polish and covered Africa and Latin America, and Martha Gellhorn, who was American and who covered all sorts of wars in different places... I think rule number one is that you go to a place and you try to learn."
Source: The Guardian, Foto8, Menassat
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Tuesday, December 15, 2009 2:34 PM
Polls consistently show a public split on the war in Afghanistan. Is that divide represented on the op-ed pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post? Not at all. According to a study published by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting in Extra!, “Both newspapers marginalized antiwar opinion to different degrees.”
Of the New York Times’ 43 columns on the Afghanistan war, 36 supported the war and only seven opposed it—five times as many columns to war supporters as opponents.
…In the Washington Post, pro-war columns outnumbered antiwar columns 10 to 1: of 67 Post columns on U.S. military policy in Afghanistan, 61 supported a continued war, while just six expressed antiwar views.
Why the discrepancy? It’s a losing battle—perhaps even a silly one—to try and shape op-ed pages to public opinion, but a little representation isn’t too much to ask. “The American public’s majority view is a decidedly minority view on the op-ed pages,” writes Steve Randall in the Extra! report. “That’s good and bad news for democracy: It’s good news that the public is not entirely captive to the narrow, elite range of debate prescribed by newspapers. It’s bad news because, however diminished their roles as opinion leaders may be, the New York Times and the Washington Post continue to wield an unmatched influence in the nation’s capital and in newsrooms across the country.”
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Image by Indy Charlie, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, December 15, 2009 11:15 AM
Under the Bush administration, opponents of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan tended to front-load their critique with a line about the administration's betrayal of returning veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. That betrayal pre-dated George W. Bush by two decades. In a chilling new piece for Boston Review, Tara McKelvey reports that "The decline in resources for veterans’ mental health services started in the 1980s, as part of a nationwide effort to move psychiatric patients into outpatient treatment. The number of inpatient psychiatric beds fell from 9,000 in the late ’80s to 3,000 by 2008." By that time, according to a Rand Corporation report, close to 20 percent of service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan—300,000 in all—were reporting symptoms of PTSD or acute depression.
The defunding of veterans' mental health services may have predated the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but that is not to say the Bush administration didn't betray veterans. McKelvey explains: "The great difficulty veterans experienced in getting psychiatric care—greater than before—was not a product of cost-cutting, but of conviction: many Bush administration officials believed that soldiers who supported the war would not face psychological problems, and if they did, they would find comfort in faith. In a resigned tone, one prominent researcher who worked for the VA, and asked that he not be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the press, explained that high-ranking officials believed that 'Jesus fixes everything.'"
The bit about Jesus fixing everything is a bit of an oversimplification. Political ideology was certainly as much of a factor and McKelvey acknowledges as much, if only in passing:
"...high-level officials at the VA shared political convictions that, along with doubts about the science of PTSD, made them less likely to push for additional psychiatric services for veterans. They believed in streamlined government and free markets, and they supported a prominent role for faith-based organizations."
For all the talk of religious obstacles to mental health treatment, the Boston Review piece is also a gift to anybody trying to understand the history PTSD diagnosis and treatment. That history, of course, is still being written. In the latest chapter, Barack Obama has proposed the largest infusion of funding for veterans in three decades. Mental health services are not ignored. "Unfortunately," writes McKelvey, " bureaucracies are slow to respond. After years of neglect during the Bush administration, veterans now have nearly one million claims pending, a record high for the agency."
About the Author: Before turning to journalism, Utne Reader senior editor Jeff Severns Guntzel spent years doing humanitarian work in pre-war Iraq. Since that time, he has reported from the Middle East and points all over the United States as a staff writer for National Catholic Reporter and as a contributing editor at the now defunct (and greatly missed) Punk Planet magazine. Electronic Iraq, a website he co-founded in 2003 to document the Iraqi experience of war, is archived in the Library of Congress and the British Library. Jeff has appeared as a guest on a number of national news programs, including NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and Democracy Now!
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Source: Boston Review
Image courtesy of the Department of Defense.
Wednesday, November 25, 2009 2:32 PM
The photojournalist who blogs under the moniker Afghan Hound at the documentary photography website Foto8 has posted a photo he took of Oz, a soldier serving in Afghanistan who was killed on his last day of deployment. The photographer talks a little bit about Oz and a lot about life as a war photographer. It's a long post and an important read. But really, his opening paragraph says it all:
Another Op-Ed in The New York Times, another well balanced political essay in Foreign Affairs, another eulogy to a departed soldier, another boring politician, another retired military commander, another demand for more troops, another demand we pull out now, another request for more helicopters, another comparison to the Soviet invasion, another Vietnam, another rant, another point of view... I just see dead people.
Friday, September 25, 2009 10:57 AM
A typical fighting season in southern Afghanistan begins in spring and continues through fall. This photo essay by photojournalist Louie Palu in the summer issue of Geist documents last year’s fighting season. It finds the region’s Pashtun people, who know little of life without seasonal warfare, living day to day on the fringes of battle.
As the 2009 fighting season began this past May, Palu returned to Afghanistan to capture what could be the worst season the Pashtun have seen. He writes:
The longer I stay in Afghanistan and the more I see, the fewer answers I have about what is going on there and what the future holds. Back in Toronto I can’t even talk to anyone in a bar, because conversations with people who think they understand Afghanistan just end as heated arguments on the sidewalk.
Image by Louie Palu.
Friday, September 25, 2009 9:51 AM
Reporters in Iraq, Afghanistan, Russia, and other hostile places around the world face the daily threat of being kidnapped. Knowing how to be kidnapped can increase a person’s chances for survival—or at least that’s the theory behind the Centurion Risk Assessment Services’ Hostile Environment and First Aid Course. Trainers stage a mock abduction using “theatrical pyrotechnics to simulate such things as mortar fire, machine gun crossfire, mines and booby traps, etc. (all kept at a safe distance from the delegates) to simulate a hostile environment.”
The American Prospect’s reporter Tara McKelvey attended the course and picked up some useful tips: “Stay in hotels that do not have underground parking garages (where car bombs can be placed). Bring along a doorstop and jam it under the door in your room. And never argue with checkpoint guards.” Considering that at least 30 journalists were killed last year for doing their jobs, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the two, three, or five day course might be worth the time.
The American Prospect
(excerpt available online)
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Wednesday, August 12, 2009 11:11 AM
After risking their lives for American troops in Afghanistan, translators are often abandoned and mistreated. The largest suppliers of translators to the U.S. military, a company called Mission Essential Personnel (MEP), sees one of its translator die and two severely injured every month, on average. In an exposé by the investigative site CorpWatch, injured employees are speaking out against MEP, accusing the company of withholding compensation and care from injured or killed employees and their families.
One former MEP employee, Basir Ahmed, told CorpWatch that he was fired after a suicide bombing in the Khogyani district of northeastern Afghanistan severely injured him. Mission Essential Personnel fired Ahmed, accusing him of being frequently late and sometimes not showing up to work—charges that he insists are trumped up. Ahmed tells a story of being moved from hospital to hospital, being forced to wait in the dead of winter for medical visits, and of promised compensation arriving months late. CorpWatch reports:
Today, he lives in hiding in nearby Jalalabad for fear that his family will be targeted because he had worked with the U.S. military. The 29-year-old has no job and had to wait nine months for disability compensation to pay for medical treatment for the burns that still prevent him from lifting his hand to his mouth to feed himself.
You can watch a video from the report below:
Thursday, July 02, 2009 2:02 PM
Afghanistan's epic battle against Soviet occupation spawned an unusual genre of war story: the war rug. It's a tradition that continues to this day, with Afghan weavers telling the story of the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent American invasion.
Max Allen is a curator of a war rug exhibit at the Textile Museum of Canada. Here’s what he has to say about the rugs:
During the Afghan wars which have gone on from 1979 to the present the whole country is full of war equipment. You can hardly avoid seeing it. And just like television or newspapers these rugs report what’s going on in Afghanistan. Before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan there was nothing anywhere in the world like this. It came out of the blue. Are the rugs pro-war or anti-war? I don’t know. You can read a message into them but whether the message was put there by the weaver, I don’t know.
Hear more from Allen and to see some of the work in this short audio slideshow:
(Thanks, Strange Maps.)
Tuesday, May 26, 2009 12:14 PM
The Taliban have again taken up residency on the front pages of our newspapers. Bill Moyers asks historian (and one-time Pakistan resident) Juan Cole a question many of us might feel silly asking after all of these years of war in Afghanistan and worry over Pakistan: “Who are the Taliban and what do they want?”
Cole’s response (and the entire Moyers segment) provides a foothold on the mountain of nuance we’re missing in the coverage of what is now being called the “Afpak” war:
What we're calling the Taliban, it's actually a misnomer. There are, like, five different groups that we're swooping up and calling the Taliban. The Taliban, properly speaking, are seminary students. They were those refugee boys, many of them orphans, who went through the seminaries or Madrassas in northern Pakistan back in the nineties. And then who emerged as a fighting force. Then you have the old war lords who had fought with the Soviet Union, and were allied with the United States. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Jalaluddin Haqqani, they have formed insurgent groups to fight the Americans now. Because they had fought the Soviet occupation, they now see an American occupation, so they've turned on the United States. They were former allies.
So we're calling them Taliban. And then you have a lot of probably disorganized villagers whose poppy crops, for instance, were burned. And they're angry. So they'll hit a NATO or American checkpoint. So we're scooping all of this up. And then the groups in northern Pakistan who are yet another group. And we're calling it all Taliban.
Want more? The interview (which also includes Pakistani-American journalist Shahan Mufti) is a must read for anybody trying to make sense of our growing entanglement in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Source: Bill Moyers Journal
Image by DoD.
Tuesday, May 26, 2009 11:55 AM
With President Obama in office, some of the Bush era’s most vociferous antiwar organizations have become peculiarly complacent, Justin Raimondo observes in the American Conservative. Raimondo singles out MoveOn.org, Americans United for Change, and VoteVets, among others for not calling the planned escalation of U.S. presence in Afghanistan what it is: no different than the war policy of the Bush era.
“Like the neoconized Republican cadre that hooted down Ron Paul as he rose to challenge the Bush foreign policy during the GOP presidential primary debates, a similarly brainwashed Democratic base is now cheerleading their leader and shouting down dissenters even as this White House repeats—and enlarges—the mistakes of the previous occupant,” Raimondo writes.
Source: American Conservative
Friday, May 22, 2009 4:27 PM
The Institute for War and Peace Reporting has an interesting and hardly surprising report on poverty-stricken Afghan youth signing up with the Taliban for part-time work:
Abdullah Jan and Abdul Khaleq are both from the Pushtrod district of Farah province in western Afghanistan. Both are young, unemployed, and seek work as day laborers, for which they get about 200 afghani (4 US dollars) per job. There is one big difference between them though: while Abdul Khaleq earns his money by digging ditches, painting houses, and other manual labour, Abdullah Jan, not his real name, does so by attacking police checkpoints.
It seems the problem of the part-time Taliban is growing:
Afghan commentators say the Taliban’s recruitment of part-timer fighters is a worrying development, as it shows how easily they can draft ordinary Afghans into their ranks. “This tactic should be studied,” said one political analyst, who did not want to give his name. “They are provoking more and more people to violence, and extending their influence in the society.”
Source: Institute for War and Peace Reporting
Monday, May 18, 2009 2:00 PM
When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, representations of human forms were banned—with one exception: men could sit for passport photos (women were represented in their travel documents by fingerprints only).
Young Taliban men flocked to Kabul’s photo studios—but not for passport photos. Instead they brushed their long hair, applied makeup to the flesh around their eyes, and posed affectionately with friends and sometimes guns.
Just weeks after the Taliban were driven from Kabul in 2001, photographer Thomas Dworzak wandered into a photo studio near his hotel and discovered piles of these photographs. As he scooped them up and paid for them, shop owners looked at him like “some stupid Westerner.”
He’s assembled the photographs in a book. His photo agency, the legendary Magnum Photos, has produced a short video and slideshow with commentary by Ahmed Rashid, a veteran correspondent in the region.
Rashid points out two things in an attempt to explain the photos, chief among them: Afghans love to have their picture taken.
He also speaks of a “very strong homosexual tradition” in Afghanistan, “in which an older man will kind of adopt a young man and become a lover and teach him whatever skills he may have.”
Though Taliban leader Mullah Omar banned homosexuality, Rashid explains, this tradition, particularly in Southern Afghanistan, “continued, but it was done surreptitiously.”
Dworzak’s found photographs are captivating evidence of a piece of Afghanistan’s history buried by the daily drumbeat of new violence.
Friday, May 15, 2009 3:48 PM
The White House’s new drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, recently announced that he’s abandoning the term “war on drugs,” telling reporters: “We're not at war with people in this country.” The change in rhetoric seems to signal a move toward a more moderate, public-health approach on drugs, rather than the militarized stance the country currently takes.
Kerlikowske may have the right idea, but a focus on policies inside the United States still neglects the far more globalized problem of the U.S. drug war abroad. According to Foreign Policy editor Moisés Naím, “the United States today is both the world’s largest importer of illicit drugs and the world’s largest exporter of bad drug policy.”
The global economic crisis has created a situation where the drug trade is one of the few economic engines in countries like Mexico, Bolivia, and Afghanistan. “In many places,” Naím writes, “narcotraffickers are the major source of jobs, economic opportunity, and money for elections.”
If policy makers want to move toward a more effective drug policy, Naím writes that a focus on the social consequences of drugs would be a good place to start. But should the United States simply replace the “war on drugs” with an “conflict against mind-altering substances” or a “battle to combat banned medications,” the drug czar’s change in tone won’t have much of an effect.
“Rhetoric matters,” writes Reason’s Radley Balko, who is encouraged by Kerlikowske’s recent decision. “War implies a threat so existential, so dire to our way of life, that we citizens should be ready to sign over some of our basic rights, be expected to make significant sacrifices, and endure collateral damage in order to defeat it. Preventing people from getting high has never represented that sort of threat.”
Though a step in the right direction, Balko admits that rhetoric alone won’t solve the drug war’s underlying problems, at home or abroad. For one thing, Kerlikowske won’t be able to create policy reforms on his own. He’ll have to work with congress and other agencies for that. Jacob Sullum, also on the Reason blog, cautions readers: “We should not be fooled by medicalized language into believing that drug prohibition is less brutal or less of an assault on our rights.”
Sources: Foreign Policy, Wall Street Journal, Reason
Thursday, May 07, 2009 2:52 PM
David Levinthal's haunting photographic recreations of the tragedy and drama of war in Afghanistan and Iraq evoke the words of the novelist and Vietnam veteran Tim O'Brien: "A true war story makes the stomach believe." Levinthal's soldiers and civilians are toys scuffed and posed for his camera. Still, they are photographs you believe—with your stomach.
For each photograph in I.E.D. there is a short burst of text—excerpts from the exceptional military blog The Sandbox, a collection of narratives and observations from service members deployed in Iraq.
"It's interesting to watch people trying to be normal in the aftermath of a fundamentally disturbing event," writes Owen Powell in 2006. "A few blocks away, corpses were littering the blackened asphalt of a city square, burning. Ambulance crews would be arriving and trying to find the wounded amongst the debris and the dead. But not us. It was someone else's job, and there really wasn't anything to do here but carry on with the mundane details of the still alive. So, we all walked around and fiddled with our gear or stood and tried to make small talk through clenched jaws."
Stories like this push Levinthal's photographs deeper into your stomach and don't fade easily from your mind. Here are some of the images:
Images courtesy of powerHouse Books.
Thursday, April 23, 2009 1:30 PM
"Almost like clockwork," writes Tom Engelhardt, "the reports float up to us from thousands of miles away, as if from another universe. Every couple of days they seem to arrive from Afghan villages that few Americans will ever see without weapon in hand ... Unfortunately, those news stories are so unimportant in our world that they seldom make it onto, no less off of, the inside pages of our papers. They're so repetitive that, once you've started reading them, you could write them in your sleep from thousands of miles away."
In his latest TomDispatch post, Engelhardt counts the dead in Afghanistan and wonders why he is so utterly alone in doing so.
"We forget these killings easily—often we don't notice them in the first place—since they don't seem to impinge on our lives," he writes. "Perhaps that's one of the benefits of fighting a war on the periphery of empire, halfway across the planet in the backlands of some impoverished country. One problem, though: the forgetting doesn't work so well in those backlands. When your child, wife or husband, mother or father is killed, you don't forget."
It's numbing to think how many children, wives, husbands, mothers, or fathers Afghanistan has lost. I remember, way back in 2003, one of those reports “you could write in your sleep.” American forces fired on a building near the city of Gardez. They believed that a renegade Afghan commander, Mullah Jalani, was storing weapons in the compound. Jalani himself may even have been sleeping there. So the compound was shot up. There were explosions. And the next day when troops showed up to assess the damage, six children were found crushed under a collapsed wall. And there were two dead adults. Neither of them were Mullah Jalani.
Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty was the man tapped to explain this one to the press. "We do make mistakes," he said. "War is an inexact art."
To the people who loved each of those six children, of course, war is not an "inexact art," it is murderous folly.
"And how exactly do we explain this ever rising pile of civilian dead to ourselves?," Engelhardt asks, five years and countless tragic blunders later. "It's being done, so we've been told, for our safety and security ... What a bad bargain it's been—and all in the name of our safety, and ours alone."
Wednesday, March 18, 2009 11:07 AM
"Want a billion dollars in development aid?," writes Pratap Chaterjee in an excellent new piece on the future of Afghanistan. "If you happen to live in Afghanistan, the two quickest ways to attract attention and so aid from the U.S. authorities are: Taliban attacks or a flourishing opium trade. For those with neither, the future could be bleak."
Chaterjee writes of his recent travels in Afghanistan for TomDispatch and, focusing on a single province, illuminates a terrible imbalance: "With Pentagon expenditures in Afghanistan running at about $36 billion a year, the annual aid allocation for the 387,000 people who live in Bamiyan Province," he writes, "is outstripped every single hour by the money spent on 30,000-plus American troops and their weaponry.
Don't miss Chaterjee's excellent dispatch.
Thursday, July 31, 2008 8:37 AM
A trio of Aussies have been teaching kids in Kabul how to skateboard, the New Statesman reports, and by year’s end they hope to establish Afghanistan’s first coed skateboarding school.
"We want to create a positive image of Afghan youth," cofounder Travis Beard told the New Statesman, "to bridge east and west, and of course the guys will learn all sorts of life skills.... But above all, it's about sport and having fun."
They call themselves Skateistan. The group has had trouble finding skateboard-friendly spots in Kabul—potholes and dust are a problem, not to mention safety and security—and they’re still looking for a space for the school.
What’s not a problem, though, is getting young people in Kabul to pick up a skateboard. "They've got more balance than Western kids, mainly because they're not scared to fall and get up again," Skateistan cofounder Oliver Percovich told the Age.
Image courtesy of Sharna Nolan/Skateistan.
Thursday, April 24, 2008 6:03 PM
Messages conveyed through bathroom graffiti exist in a world of their own, somewhere between the bounds of taste and repugnance, lacking the privacy of a diary but too ephemeral and obscure to truly be part of the public domain. They are personal statements momentarily pushed into view, yet destined for erasure. In part, this transience is what makes Steve Featherstone’s visual essay in the Walrus about graffiti in the latrines of U.S. soldiers serving in Kuwait and Afghanistan such an appealing project. His pictures capture something that those of us living stateside could never otherwise have seen. The scrawlings are both foreign and familiar: macho anger, smack-talk between soldiers and, above all, homesickness. The messages don’t come together to form some cohesive, revelatory narrative, as much as we might wish them to.
Featherstone doesn’t read too much into what’s written on the privy walls. As a whole, the messages serve as a window into one of the world’s shitholes, not a codex for understanding conflict in the Middle East or the meaning of warfare. They are what they are, “fleeting moment[s] in a six year-old war—nothing more. The words on these walls are snatches of an overheard and ongoing conversation that changes by the day, soldier’s talking to other soldiers at a time when soldiers are being asked to give more than they have been giving, which is already too much.”
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Monday, April 07, 2008 6:05 PM
If 55 veterans gathered in the same place, at the same time, prepared to give disarmingly honest testimonies about their on-the-ground experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, would anybody listen?
Because that happened, just a few weeks ago. Vets convened in the Washington, DC area for IVAW’s Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan—and for the most part, mainstream media have either ignored the momentous gathering or relegated coverage to their metro sections, reports Extra!.
Winter Soldier has yet to be mentioned in the
New York Times itself. No major U.S. newspaper has covered the hearings except as a story of local interest; the few stories major U.S. newspapers have published on the event have focused on the participation of local vets (Boston Globe, 3/16/08; Boston Herald, 3/16/08; Newsday, 3/16/08, Buffalo News, 3/16/08).
And you probably didn’t see any Winter Soldier testimonies on television—the major broadcast TV networks (and PBS!) avoided the event altogether—but they’re all available at the IVAW website, organized into panels like “Racism and War: The Dehumanization of the Enemy” and “Divide to Conquer: Gender and Sexuality in the Military.”
Monday, November 05, 2007 5:19 PM
After 9/11, Al Jazeera immediately assumed a more significant role on the global media stage. The news station’s privileged access to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan—and its position as Osama bin Laden’s preferred videotape recipient—placed Al Jazeera leaps and bounds ahead of sources like CNN and BBC (both of which have relied on feed from Al Jazeera). The station quickly came to serve as America’s primary window to the Middle East.
In the most recent issue of Islamica, Silvia Gaiani dissects Al Jazeera’s rise to international prominence. Gaiani, a Bologna, Italy-based journalist and scholar, credits the station’s prolonged success to its coverage of issues with pan-Arab appeal. It’s also come to be considered an accurate source of local news in countries with highly censored media. If there was a riot or protest, Gaiani notes, the news used to spread by word of mouth. Now, it’s Al Jazeera.
The unexpected by-product of Al Jazeera’s success, Gaiani argues, is that “[f]or the first time in modern history, the flow of information is no longer just from West to East.” This is a point that cannot be understated, especially now that the network has branched out into English, effectively doubling its market from 40 million Arabic-speaking viewers to 70-80 million. And its influence should only rise as Al Jazeera eyes the Urdu-speaking market of South Asia.
Even though the network has yet to broadcast in the United States, its entry could be exactly what American news needs: a voice that forces the hand of top domestic networks to reshape their coverage of the Middle East.
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