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Nick Turse: Secret Wars and Black Ops Blowback

7:39 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

US soldier helping Burundi soldiers use mortar

The United States wages a worldwide, secret war in over 100 countries.

[Note for TomDispatch Readers in or around New York City: On Friday, January 17th at 7 pm, Nick Turse will be discussing his bestselling book, Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam (just out in paperback), with TomDispatch regular Chase Madar at a favorite independent bookstore of mine -- Brooklyn's Book Court.  For more details, click here. Tom]

These days, when I check out the latest news on Washington’s global war-making, I regularly find at least one story that fits a new category in my mind that I call: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Take last Saturday’s Post report by Craig Whitlock on the stationing of less than two dozen U.S. “military advisers” in war-torn Somalia.  They’ve been there for months, it turns out, and their job is “to advise and coordinate operations with African troops fighting to wrest control of the country from the al-Shabab militia.”  If you leave aside the paramilitarized CIA (which has long had a secret base and prison in that country), those advisers represent the first U.S. military boots on the ground there since the infamous “Black Hawk Down” incident of 1993.  As soon as I read the piece, I automatically thought: Given the history of the U.S. in Somalia, including the encouragement of a disastrous 2006 Ethiopian invasion of that country, what could possibly go wrong?

Some days when I read the news, I can’t help but think of the late Chalmers Johnson; on others, the satirical newspaper the Onion comes to mind.  If Washington did it — and by “it,” I mean invade and occupy a country, intervene in a rebellion against an autocrat, intervene in a civil war, launch a drone campaign against a terror outfit, or support and train local forces against some group the U.S. doesn’t like — you already know all you need to know.  Any version of the above has repeatedly translated into one debacle or disaster after another.  In the classic term of CIA tradecraft that Johnson took for the title of a book — a post-9/11 bestseller — send a drone over Yemen with the intent to kill, kick down doors in Afghanistan or Iraq, put U.S. boots back on the ground in Somalia and you’re going to be guaranteed “unintended consequences” and undoubtedly some form of “blowback” as well.  To use a sports analogy, if since 9/11 Washington has been the globe’s cleanup hitter, it not only hasn’t managed to knock a single ball out of the park, it’s struck out enough times to make those watching dizzy, and it’s batting .000.

You would think that someone in the nation’s capital might have drawn a lesson or two from such a record, something simple like: Don’t do it!  But — here’s where the Onion should be able to run riot — there clearly is no learning curve in Washington.  Tactics change, but the ill-conceived, ill-begotten, ill-fated Global War on Terror (GWOT), which long ago outran its own overblown name, continues without end, and without either successes of any lasting sort or serious reconsideration.  In this period, al-Qaeda, a small-scale organization capable of immodest terror acts every couple of years and, despite the fantasies of Homeland and Fox News, without a sleeper cell in the United States, managed, with Washington’s help, to turn itself into a global franchise.  The more the Bush and Obama administrations went after it, the more al-Qaeda wannabe organizations sprang up across the Greater Middle East and north Africa like mushrooms after a soaking rain.

The earliest GWOTsters, all Onion-style satirists, believed that the U.S. was destined to rule the world till Hell froze over.  Their idea of a snappy quip was “Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran,” and they loved to refer to the Greater Middle East as “the arc of instability.”  That, mind you, was before they sent in the U.S. military.  Today, 12 years later, that long-gone world looks like an arc of stability, while the U.S. has left the Greater Middle East, from North Africa to Syria, from Yemen to Afghanistan, a roiling catastrophe zone of conflict, refugees, death, and destruction.  As it happened, the Bush administration’s invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq proved to be the only genuine weapons of mass destruction around, loosing, among other things, what could prove to be the great religious war of modern times.

And the lessons drawn?  As TomDispatch regular Nick Turse, author of Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam (just out in paperback), suggests in today’s post, the Obama administration has overseen the reorganization of the Global War on Terror as a vast secret operation of unrivaled proportions.  It now oversees a planetary surveillance network of staggering size and reach (itself leading to historic blowback) and the spread of a secret military spawned inside the U.S. military and now undergoing typically mindless expansion on a gargantuan scale. What could possibly go wrong? Tom

The Special Ops Surge
America’s Secret War in 134 Countries
By Nick Turse

They operate in the green glow of night vision in Southwest Asia and stalk through the jungles of South America.  They snatch men from their homes in the Maghreb and shoot it out with heavily armed militants in the Horn of Africa.  They feel the salty spray while skimming over the tops of waves from the turquoise Caribbean to the deep blue Pacific.  They conduct missions in the oppressive heat of Middle Eastern deserts and the deep freeze of Scandinavia.  All over the planet, the Obama administration is waging a secret war whose full extent has never been fully revealed — until now.

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Washington’s Wedding Album From Hell

6:53 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

“Bride and Boom!”
We’re Number One… In Obliterating Wedding Parties
By Tom Engelhardt

The headline — “Bride and Boom!” — was spectacular, if you think killing people in distant lands is a blast and a half.  Of course, you have to imagine that smirk line in giant black letters with a monstrous exclamation point covering most of the bottom third of the front page of the Murdoch-owned New York Post.  The reference was to a caravan of vehicles on its way to or from a wedding in Yemen that was eviscerated, evidently by a U.S. drone via one of those “surgical” strikes of which Washington is so proud.  As one report put it, “Scorched vehicles and body parts were left scattered on the road.”

It goes without saying that such a headline could only be applied to assumedly dangerous foreigners — “terror” or “al-Qaeda suspects” — in distant lands whose deaths carry a certain quotient of weirdness and even amusement with them.  Try to imagine the equivalent for the Newtown massacre the day after Adam Lanza broke into Sandy Hook Elementary School and began killing children and teachers.  Since even the New York Post wouldn’t do such a thing, let’s posit that the Yemen Post did, that playing off the phrase “head of the class,” their headline was: “Dead of the Class!” (with that same giant exclamation point). It would be sacrilege.  The media would descend.  The tastelessness of Arabs would be denounced all the way up to the White House.  You’d hear about the callousness of foreigners for days.

And were a wedding party to be obliterated on a highway anywhere in America on the way to, say, a rehearsal dinner, whatever the cause, it would be a 24/7 tragedy. Our lives would be filled with news of it. Count on that.

But a bunch of Arabs in a country few in the U.S. had ever heard of before we started sending in the drones?  No such luck, so if you’re a Murdoch tabloid, it’s open season, no consequences guaranteed.  As it happens, “Bride and Boom!” isn’t even an original.  It turns out to be a stock Post headline.  Google it and you’ll find that, since 9/11, the paper has used it at least twice before last week, and never for the good guys: once in 2005, for “the first bomb-making husband and wife,” two Palestinian newlyweds arrested by the Israelis; and once in 2007, for a story about a “bride,” decked out in a “princess-style wedding gown,” with her “groom.” Their car was stopped at a checkpoint in Iraq by our Iraqis, and both of them turned out to be male “terrorists” in a “nutty nuptial party.”  Ba-boom!

As it happened, the article by Andy Soltis accompanying the Post headline last week began quite inaccurately.  “A U.S. drone strike targeting al-Qaeda militants in Yemen,” went the first line, “took out an unlikely target on Thursday — a wedding party heading to the festivities.”

Soltis can, however, be forgiven his ignorance.  In this country, no one bothers to count up wedding parties wiped out by U.S. air power.  If they did, Soltis would have known that the accurate line, given the history of U.S. war-making since December 2001 when the first party of Afghan wedding revelers was wiped out (only two women surviving), would have been: “A U.S. drone… took out a likely target.” Read the rest of this entry →

Ann Jones: America’s Child Soldiers

9:10 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

A row of 'JROTC' High School cadets

The increasing popularity of JROTC reflects the militarization of American childhood.

Another week, another revelation about spying by the National Security Agency.  This time, it was the NSA’s infiltration of online video games and virtual realms like World of Warcraft and Second Life.  And it was hardly a shock.  More than a decade ago, TomDispatch began reporting on the U.S. military’s collaborations with the video game industry, including a virtual world known as There.  As the years went by, the military became ever more enmeshed in the digital world.  In 2008, while covering the 26th Army Science Conference, I spoke to the chief of the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command about a new recruiting initiative he was setting up in the fantasy realm of Second Life.  General William Wallace was over the moon about the possibility of engaging with the “four million young people” who had signed onto that virtual online environment.

While the Army was making an overt play for new recruits in the digital universe, the NSA was secretly targeting virtual worlds for clandestine activities.  A top-secret 2008 NSA document, leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden to the Guardian and shared with the New York Times and ProPublica, cast online games as a “target-rich communication network.”  They were imagined (with little evidence) to be potential terrorist havens and so, as one document gushed, “an opportunity!”

In the time since I spoke to General Wallace, virtual worlds have bloomed.  The number of Second Life accounts, for example, has grown to 36 million registered users, according to its creator, Linden Labs.  And it seems, as the Times and ProPublica reported, that a surprising number of those new visitors were from the U.S. Intelligence Community.  Second Life, in fact, became so thick with spies from the Pentagon, the CIA, and the FBI that it was necessary to create what one of the leaked documents called a “deconfliction” group to keep them from duplicating their efforts, spying on one another, and so turning their online push into a digital snarl.

And yet, after all that virtual snooping, there is no evidence that the untold millions of dollars spent infiltrating digital spies into worlds of pixies, scantily-clad lion-women, and pony skeleton avatars (no, I’m not making these up) has uncovered any terrorists or foiled any al-Qaeda plots.  It has, however, allowed the U.S. government to penetrate the lives of the young (and increasingly, the not-so-young) in new and intrusive ways.

Today, Ann Jones, author of the acclaimed new Dispatch Book, They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars — The Untold Story, examines another way the U.S. military targets America’s youth — via a completely non-virtual, off-line, old school social network: the Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps.  It’s a startling look at the sort of everyday military indoctrination that may be happening, possibly in your very neighborhood, and almost as quietly as government agents slip in and out of their favorite digital fantasy worlds.

After recently shining much needed light on what happens to America’s veterans once they return from this country’s war zones, Jones turns her perceptive gaze on one way the military gets hold of young men and women in the first place.  If you thought only countries like Yemen, South Sudan, and Chad had child soldiers, think again. Nick Turse

America’s Child Soldiers
JROTC and the Militarizing of America
By Ann Jones

Congress surely meant to do the right thing when, in the fall of 2008, it passed the Child Soldiers Prevention Act (CSPA). The law was designed to protect kids worldwide from being forced to fight the wars of Big Men. From then on, any country that coerced children into becoming soldiers was supposed to lose all U.S. military aid.

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Beverly Gologorsky: My Neighbor, War

7:38 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Cover of "Stop Here"

Novelist Beverly Gologorsky on the influence of war on fiction & culture.

In the years when I was growing up more or less middle class, American war on the childhood front couldn’t have been sunnier.  True, American soldiers were fighting a grim new stalemate of a conflict in Korea and we kids often enough found ourselves crouched under our school desks practicing for the nuclear destruction of our neighborhoods, but the culture was still focused on World War II.  Enter a movie theater then and as just about any war flick ended, the Air Force arrived in the nick of time, the Marines eternally advanced, and victory was ours, a God-given trait of the American way of life.

In those days, it was still easy to present war sunny-side up.  After all, you couldn’t go wrong with the Good War — not that anyone called it that until Studs Terkel put the phrase into the language and the culture dropped the quote marks with which he carefully encircled it.  And if your Dad, who had served in one of the great draft armies of our history, sat beside you silently in that movie theater while John Wayne saved the world, never saying a word about his war (except in rare and sudden outbursts of anger), well, that was no problem.  His silence only encouraged you to feel that, given what you’d seen at the movies (not to speak of on TV, in books, in comics, and more or less anywhere else), you already understood his experience and it had been grand indeed.

And then, of course, we boys went into the parks, backyards, or fields and practiced making war the American way, shooting commies, or Ruskies, or Indians, or Japs, or Nazis with toy guns (or sticks).  It may not sound pretty anymore, but take my word for it, it was glorious back when.

More than half a century later, those movies are relics of the neolithic era.  The toy six-shooters I once holstered and strapped to my waist, along with the green plastic soldiers that I used to storm the beaches of Iwo Jima or Normandy, are somewhere in the trash heap of time.  And in the wake of Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, who believes that America has a God-given right to victory?  Still, I have a few relics from that era, lead Civil War and Indian War-style soldiers who, more than half a century ago, fought out elaborate battles on my floor, and I’d be a liar if I didn’t admit that holding one for a moment doesn’t give me some faint wash of emotion from another age.  That emotion, so much stronger then, sent thousands of young Americans into Vietnam dreaming of John Wayne.

These days, post-Vietnam, post-9/11, no one rides to the rescue, “victory” is no longer in our possession, and for the first time in memory, a majority of the public thinks Washington should “mind its own business” globally when it comes to war-making.  Not surprisingly, in an America that’s lost its appetite for war, such conflicts are far more embattled, so much less onscreen, and as novelist Beverly Gologorsky writes today, unacknowledged in much of American fiction.

There was nothing sunny about war, even in the 1950s, for the young, working-class Gologorsky.  If my childhood was, in a sense, lit by war and by a 24/7 economy in which the same giant corporations built ever larger cars and missiles, television consoles and submarines, hers was shadowed by it.  She sensed, far more than I, the truth of war that lay in our future.  That shadowing is the essence of her deeply moving “Vietnam” novel, The Things We Do to Make It Home, and her just-published second novel, Stop Here, a book that comes to grips in a way both subtle and heart-rending with the Iraq and Afghan wars without ever leaving the environs of a diner in Long Island, New York. Tom

In the Shadow of War
Life and Fiction in Twenty-First-Century America
By Beverly Gologorsky

I’m a voracious reader of American fiction and I’ve noticed something odd in recent years. This country has been eternally “at war” and you just wouldn’t know that — a small amount of veteran’s fiction aside — from the novels that are generally published.  For at least a decade, Americans have been living in the shadow of war and yet, except in pop fiction of the Tom Clancy variety (where, in the end, we always win), there’s remarkably little evidence of it.

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Pratap Chatterjee: The Jason Bourne Strategy

7:35 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

[Note from Tom: A death can feel like an archive closing forever on some aspect of your life.  Such is the case for me with the death of Andre Schiffrin.  If you’ll all excuse me, I want to note his passing briefly here:

Secret Agent

Does the CIA think it’s in a Hollywood movie?

This won’t mean much to most of you, but Andre, publisher of Pantheon Books and my boss for 15 years, the person who, in 1976, hired me when there was really no obvious reason to do so and, more than anyone else, let me become what I am today, died last weekend. It’s a moment of genuine sadness for me, an indication that an era — my own in many ways, though he was nine years older than me — has ended. The world of books is unimaginable (to me) without him. Without him, Studs Terkel might never have done his oral histories and Art Spiegelman’s Maus, the “first graphic novel,” might never have been published. (He let me do Spiegelman’s masterpiece when, in embryonic form, it had been turned down by every major publishing house in New York.)

I first spent time with Andre in 1971 after I had published an essay, “Ambush at Kamikaze Pass,” in the single most obscure journal on the planet, The Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars. He nonetheless read it and invited me to lunch to urge me to turn it into a book, something I couldn’t faintly imagine doing at the time. I did, however, finally come to agree with him and wrote that book, which was published in 1995 as The End of Victory Culture.  In other words, with my project as with so much else in the world of books, he was a man almost 25 years ahead of his time.

Ariel Dorfman, a writer whose work I published early on in my tenure at Pantheon, wrote me this after Andre’s death: “His existence changed our lives, just by giving you free rein at Pantheon to believe in a young exiled writer.” He couldn’t have been more on the mark. 
Andre’s New York Times obituary offered the gist of his life and the sense that he was a great one. It missed, however, his risk-taking nature and his radical view of what might matter to our world.  It also provided a less than satisfactory account of how the right-wing owner of the conglomerate that housed Pantheon made use of a politically inauspicious time for a small left-wing publishing outfit to push him out of his job (after which we, his loyal editors and employees, quit in protest). Still, no complaints here. The world and the man that made me are both history. What more is there to say at the moment?]

Someone should launch a feature somewhere on American foreign and war policy under the rubric: How could anything possibly go wrong?  Here are just two recent examples.

The Obama administration intervenes militarily in Libya, plays a significant role in overthrowing the autocrat who runs the country as a police state, and helps unleash chaos in its wake. The streets of Libyan cities fill with militias as the new government’s control of the situation fades to next to nil. Which brings us to our present moment, when a panicky Washington decides that what’s needed is yet another, different kind of intervention. The plan seems to be to compete with various local and Islamic militias by creating a government militia as the core of a new “national army.” Its members are to be drawn from already existing militias and they’ll be trained somewhere outside of Libya. What an idea! Honestly, what could possibly go wrong?

Or consider this: Washington begins to panic about heightening tensions between Japan and China over uninhabited islands in the East China Sea.  The problem, reports David Sanger of the New York Times, based on what Obama administration officials have told him, is that the conflict could escalate and so “derail their complex plan to manage China’s rise without overtly trying to contain it.”  Now, let’s get this straight: before things began to run off the rails in the East China Sea, the Obama administration was confidently planning to “manage” the rise of the next superpower on a planet already in such tumult that what being a new great power might even mean is open to question. And keep in mind that we’re talking about an administration that couldn’t manage the rollout of a website.  What could possibly go wrong?

Both examples highlight the strange combination of hubris and panic that, as TomDispatch regular Pratap Chatterjee points out today, seems to be the essence of so many of Washington’s plans and actions at the moment.  The urge to “manage” is invariably followed by shock at the unmanageability of this roiling globe of ours, followed by panic over plans gone desperately awry when things begin, utterly predictably, to happen unpredictably, followed of course by the next set of managerial plans.  Is there no learning curve in Washington? Tom

Hollywood Without the Happy Ending
How the CIA Bungled the War on Terror
By Pratap Chatterjee

Call it the Jason Bourne strategy.

Think of it as the CIA’s plunge into Hollywood — or into the absurd.  As recent revelations have made clear, that Agency’s moves couldn’t be have been more far-fetched or more real.  In its post-9/11 global shadow war, it has employed both private contractors and some of the world’s most notorious prisoners in ways that leave the latest episode of the Bourne films in the dust: hired gunmen trained to kill as well as former inmates who cashed in on the notoriety of having worn an orange jumpsuit in the world’s most infamous jail.

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Col. Manners Explains It All

8:18 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Soldier drinking tea

Etiquette for warfare and occupation with Col. Manners

[Note to TomDispatch Readers: News about the first original Dispatch Book, Ann Jones's They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America’s Wars -- The Untold Story, continues to spread!  The Nation magazine has just published a particularly moving excerpt from it: "The Colonel, the Soldier, and the Caregiver: How the War Changed Charlie."  The book itself is a remarkable act of witness and a unique accounting of the true costs of war, up close and personal.  I urge you to pick up a copy.  And while we’re at it, on our return from Thanksgiving, we’re bringing back our good friend “Colonel Manners” to offer another TomDispatch-style satiric take on Washington and war. Tom]

The American Way of Manners
Col. Manners Answers Your Questions on the Etiquette of War, Nuclear Threats, and Surveillance
By Colonel Manners (with a helping hand from Tom Engelhardt)

[Editor’s Note: Many publications have advice columnists, but none has our old friend Colonel Manners (ret.), whose experience in military and surveillance matters is evident from his impressive CV (unfortunately, a classified document). His assignment: to answer questions from Americans puzzled by the abstruse intricacies of the American way of war and by the etiquette, manners, and language of the arcane national security world of Washington. Here is a sampling of his recent correspondence.]

Dear Col. Manners,

I’m a 17-year-old high school student with an interest in American records.  After college, I’m hoping to land a job with Guinness World Records.  So here’s my question: I notice that news reports regularly refer to the Afghan War as the “longest in American history.”  How is that possible?  The war began in October 2001 and it’s now December 2013.  Counting on my fingers, I get 12 years.  The Vietnam War began in 1961 and didn’t end until 1975 (with those famous images of helicopters going over the side of an aircraft carrier).  That’s 14 years by my count.  I’m proud of American records of every sort, but this doesn’t seem like one.  What am I doing wrong?

Proud in Toledo

Dear Proud,

You have a lot to be proud of and, as far as I can tell, you have just the right number of fingers.  It’s true that, historically, we’ve been numero uno among record-breaking countries.  Still, sometimes we get a little overeager.  This is one of those cases.  Clearly, those claiming the much desired “longest” title for Afghanistan are cheating by counting the Vietnam War as starting in 1964 with Congress’s Gulf of Tonkin resolution, or 1965 when the first official U.S. combat troops entered that country, not in 1961, when significant numbers of armed “advisors” initially arrived.

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Ann Jones: War Wounds

10:16 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

Editor’s Note: Ann Jones will be here next Saturday for FDL’s Book Salon.

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

They Were Soldiers cover

A new book explains how we mistreat America’s veterans.

In 2010, I arrived at Harvard University with a mess of a manuscript — 10 years’ worth of research on American war crimes in Vietnam patchworked together in such a way that it was comprehensible to only one person on the planet: me.  But I was lucky.  I had a year to do something about it, and by something, I mean write the book again. From scratch. It was a daunting task, but the alternative was to declare the project a lost cause — and I wasn’t ready to do that.

At the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, I was given an office, financial support, access to one of the world’s great libraries, and everything else that comes with a fellowship at an elite institution like Harvard.  I couldn’t have asked for more, but as it happened, I needed more. I needed help, direction, advice. I needed a sounding board. I needed the counsel of someone with an intimate knowledge of war, of violence, of atrocity.  Presumably, there was someone at Harvard with such credentials.  But where among the brick and ivy, could I find such a person?

It turned out that she was indeed at Harvard — and conveniently located in an office about three feet distant from mine. Radcliffe, in its infinite wisdom, had made Ann Jones my neighbor for the year and her guidance helped transform that mess of a manuscript into my book Kill Anything That MovesThe Real American War in Vietnam.

Day after day, I would flop into a chair in her office and we would talk through various quandaries I faced: how to write up a particular incident, where to locate a key chapter, how to convey the horror I’d uncovered without traumatizing the reader.  In the midst of this, she began to share snippets of her latest interviews with damaged war veterans, their family members, and the American military personnel tasked with mitigating their physical injuries and psychological issues. In the midst of our mutual fellowship stays, Ann borrowed some body armor and jetted off to Afghanistan to bear witness to the wounded and the work of the men and women who attempted to save them. From there, she flew to Germany with the grievously injured and finally back to the U.S. where she began to keep tabs on their recovery and what has become of them.

As I listened to Ann, as I watched her office fill up with articles on combat, killing, and post-traumatic stress, as I saw her bookshelves strain under the weight of innumerable volumes on war, military training, and veterans’ issues, as I began to grasp just where her interviews and research were taking her, as we talked about all of this in detail, I became ever more certain that hers would be a special, even unprecedented volume, an “untold story” in the recent annals of American war. I knew that, as she was helping me, she was also writing a book which anyone interested in understanding the cost of war for soldiers and veterans, as well as their families and those who treat them, would need to read. I knew that her book would change the way we understand America’s recent wars.

I had no idea, at the time, however, that I would eventually have the opportunity to play a role in bringing They Were SoldiersHow the Wounded Return from America’s Wars — The Untold Story into being.  It’s a beautifully written, devastatingly poignant piece of reportage, and an instant classic on the hidden reverberations of our distant wars — from triage that goes on unseen behind hospital doors to the long, private struggles that occur anonymously in suburban neighborhoods and rehabilitation centers across the U.S.  As with so many works that are ahead of their time, They Were Soldiers had difficulty finding a home.  I was delighted then that Tom Engelhardt and I had a fledgling imprint, with Haymarket Books behind us, that last week made Ann’s book a reality.

My role in They Were Soldiers has been modest.  Ann did the heavy lifting and it was, indeed, heavy.  At 73, she strapped on body armor and headed to war so you didn’t have to.  She watched the sort of “meatball surgery” that would have left you doubled over and retching.  She asked the hard questions of soldiers, veterans, and their family members that you never could.  And she wrote it all up with passion, eloquence, and unsparing clarity.

I spent the last 10 years interviewing veterans and intensely studying war and I still find They Were Soldiers to be revelatory.  Just as our conversations did at Harvard, now her book has altered my outlook on American war and its aftermath.  Today, she’s offering to do the same for you.  If you haven’t already done so, I urge you to pick up a copy of They Were Soldiers.  It’s the next best thing to having Ann as your neighbor. Nick Turse

A Trail of Tears 
How Veterans Return From America’s Wars 
By Ann Jones

[The text of this piece is an excerpt, slightly adapted, from Ann Jones's new book They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America's Wars -- The Untold Story, just published by Dispatch Books/Haymarket Books]

In 2010, I began to follow U.S. soldiers down a long trail of waste and sorrow that led from the battle spaces of Afghanistan to the emergency room of the trauma hospital at Bagram Air Base, where their catastrophic wounds were surgically treated and their condition stabilized.  Then I accompanied some of them by cargo plane to Ramstein Air Base in Germany for more surgeries at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, or LRMC (pronounced Larm-See), the largest American hospital outside the United States.

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Tomgram: Ann Jones, Silent Soldiers, The Losers From Our Lost Wars

7:28 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

When Barack Obama took office, the sky was the limit in the Greater Middle East.  After all, it seemed the U.S. had hit rock bottom.  President Bush had set the region aflame with a raging debacle in Iraq, a sputtering conflict in Afghanistan, and a low-level drone war in Pakistan.  The outgoing president was wildly unpopular in the region and it was hard to imagine just what the new administration could do to make the situation worse.

For all his foreign policy faults, Bush had even left his successor with an ace in the hole.  Obama had campaigned on ending the Iraq War and Bush was kind enough to negotiate the terms for him before he left office.  All the new president had to do was sit back and reap the rewards.

Almost five years later, the administration surely wishes it had a time machine to take America back to the Bush days when Iraq was convulsed by a civil war, the war in Afghanistan was largely forgotten, Egypt and Tunisia were under the thumbs of American-backed tyrants, and Syria and Libya were controlled by detested but stable dictators.

What seemed at the time to be a blood-soaked hell must look more like the halcyon days to the Obama administration, whose national security team now seems content to limp through the remainder of the president’s second term with fingers crossed, hoping desperately that they won’t stumble, bumble, stagger, slide, or inadvertently leap into yet another foreign policy fiasco in the region.  Today, as Bob Dreyfuss indicates, the administration finds itself adrift in the Greater Middle East, chastened by a series of its own foreign policy flubs, stumbles, and mini-disasters, as well as by governments that seem increasingly beyond its power or ability to control, coerce, or cajole.  The only country in the region that seems to bear much resemblance to its pre-Obama self is Iraq, where violence has reached its highest level in half a decade and suicide and car bombings, assassinations, kidnappings, and death threats are creeping ever closer to Bush-era levels.

Today, TomDispatch regular and Nation magazine stalwart Bob Dreyfuss wades knee deep in the Big Muddy in the Middle East to offer a vivid portrait of an Obama administration in remarkable disarray. Nick Turse

A Field Guide to Losing Friends, Influencing No One, and Alienating the Middle East 
Obama’s Washington Is the Rodney Dangerfield of the Region
By Bob Dreyfuss

Put in context, the simultaneous raids in Libya and Somalia last month, targeting an alleged al-Qaeda fugitive and an alleged kingpin of the al-Shabab Islamist movement, were less a sign of America’s awesome might than two minor exceptions that proved an emerging rule: namely, that the power, prestige, and influence of the United States in the broader Middle East and its ability to shape events there is in a death spiral.

Twelve years after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan to topple the Taliban and a decade after the misguided invasion of Iraq — both designed to consolidate and expand America’s regional clout by removing adversaries — Washington’s actual standing in country after country, including its chief allies in the region, has never been weaker. Though President Obama can order raids virtually anywhere using Special Operations forces, and though he can strike willy-nilly in targeted killing actions by calling in the Predator and Reaper drones, he has become the Rodney Dangerfield of the Middle East. Not only does no one there respect the United States, but no one really fears it, either — and increasingly, no one pays it any mind at all.

There are plenty of reasons why America’s previously unchallenged hegemony in the Middle East is in free fall. The disastrous invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq generated anti-American fervor in the streets and in the elites. America’s economic crisis since 2008 has convinced many that the United States no longer has the wherewithal to sustain an imperial presence. The Arab Spring, for all its ups and downs, has challenged the status quo everywhere, leading to enormous uncertainty while empowering political forces unwilling to march in lockstep with Washington. In addition, oil-consuming nations like China and India have become more engaged with their suppliers, including Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Iraq. The result: throughout the region, things are fast becoming unglued for the United States.

Its two closest allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia, are sullenly hostile, routinely ignore Obama’s advice, and openly oppose American policies. Iraq and Afghanistan, one formerly occupied and one about to be evacuated, are led, respectively, by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, an inflexible sectarian Shiite closely tied to Iran, and President Hamid Karzai, a corrupt, mercurial leader who periodically threatens to join the Taliban. In Egypt, three successive regimes — those of President Hosni Mubarak, Mohammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the chieftains of the July 2013 military coup — have insouciantly flouted U.S. wishes.

Turkey, ostensibly a NATO ally but led by a quirky Islamist, is miffed over Obama’s back-and-forth policy in Syria and has shocked the U.S. by deciding to buy a non-NATO-compatible missile defense system from China. Libya, Somalia, and Yemen have little or no government at all. They have essentially devolved into a mosaic of armed gangs, many implacably opposed to the United States.

This downward spiral has hardly escaped attention. In a recent address to the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations, Chas Freeman, the former American ambassador to Saudi Arabia, described it in some detail. “We have lost intellectual command and practical control of the many situations unfolding there,” said Freeman, whose nomination by Obama in 2009 to serve as head of the National Intelligence Council was shot down by the Israel Lobby. “We must acknowledge the reality that we no longer have or can expect to have the clout we once did in the region.”

In an editorial on October 29th, the New York Times ruefully concluded: “It is not every day that America finds itself facing open rebellion from its allies, yet that is what is happening with Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Israel.” And in a front-page story on the administration’s internal deliberations, the Times’s Mark Landler reported that, over the summer, the White House had decided to scale back its role in the Middle East because many objectives “lie outside [its] reach,” and henceforth would adopt a “more modest strategy” in the region.

Perhaps the most profound irony embedded in Washington’s current predicament is this: Iran, for decades the supposed epicenter of anti-Americanism in the region, is the country where the United States has perhaps its last opportunity to salvage its position. If Washington and Tehran can negotiate a détente — and it’s a big if, given the domestic political power of hawks in both countries — that accord might go a long way toward stabilizing Washington’s regional credibility.

Debacle in Syria

Let’s begin our survey of America’s Greater Middle Eastern fecklessness with Exhibit A: Syria. It is there, where a movement to oust President Bashar al-Assad devolved into a civil war, that the United States has demonstrated its utter inability to guide events. Back in the summer of 2011 — at the very dawn of the conflict — Obama demanded that Assad step down.  There was only one problem: short of an Iraq-style invasion of Syria, he had no power to make that happen. Assad promptly called his bluff, escalated the conflict, and rallied support from Russia and Iran. Obama’s clarion call for his resignation only made things worse by convincing Syrian rebels that the United States would come to their aid.

A year later, Obama drew a “red line” in the sand, suggesting that any use of chemical weapons by Syrian forces would precipitate a U.S. military response. Again Assad ignored him, and many hundreds of civilians were gassed to death in multiple uses of the dreaded weapons.

The crowning catastrophe of Obama’s Syria policy came when he threatened a devastating strike on Assad’s military facilities using Tomahawk cruise missiles and other weaponry. Instead of finding himself leading a George W. Bush-style “coalition of the willing” with domestic support, Obama watched as allies scattered, including the usually reliable British and the Arab League. At home, political support was nearly nil and evaporated from there. Polls showed Americans overwhelmingly opposed to a war with or attack on Syria.

When, in desperation, the president appealed to Congress for a resolution to authorize the use of military force against that country, the White House found (to its surprise) that Congress, which normally rubber-stamps such proposals, would have none of it. Paralyzed, reluctant to choose between backing down and striking Syria by presidential fiat, Obama was rescued in humiliating fashion by a proposal from Syria’s chief ally, Russia, to dismantle and destroy that country’s chemical weapons arsenal.

Adding insult to injury, as Secretary of State John Kerry scrambles to organize a long-postponed peace conference in Geneva aimed at reaching a political settlement of the civil war, he is faced with a sad paradox: while the Syrian government has agreed to attend the Geneva meeting, also sponsored by Russia, America’s allies, the anti-Assad rebels, have flatly refused to go.

Laughingstock in Egypt

Don’t think for a second that Washington’s ineffectiveness stops with the ongoing Syrian fiasco.

Next door, in a country whose government was installed by the United States after the 2003 invasion, the Obama administration notoriously failed to convince the Iraqis to allow even a small contingent of American troops to remain there past 2011. Since then, that country has moved ever more firmly into Iran’s orbit and has virtually broken with Washington over Syria.

Since the start of the civil war in Syria, Shiite-led Iraq has joined Shiite Iran in supporting Assad, whose ruling minority Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shiism. There have been widespread reports that pro-Assad Iraqi Shiite militias are traveling to Syria, presumably with the support or at least acquiescence of the government. Ignoring Washington’s entreaties, it has also allowed Iran to conduct a virtual Berlin Airlift-style aerial resupply effort for Syria’s armed forces through Iraqi air space. Last month, in an appearance before the Council on Foreign Relations in New York during the United Nations General Assembly session, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari undiplomatically warned Obama that his government stands against the U.S. decision — taken in a secret presidential finding in April and only made public last summer — to provide arms to Syria’s rebels. (“We oppose providing military assistance to any [Syrian] rebel groups.”)

Meanwhile, Washington is also flailing in its policy toward Egypt, where the Obama administration has been singularly hapless.  In a rare feat, it has managed to anger and alienate every conceivable faction in that politically divided country. In July, when Egypt’s military ousted President Mohammad Morsi and violently clamped down on the Muslim Brotherhood, the Obama administration made itself look ridiculous to Egyptians (and to the rest of the Middle East) by refusing to call what happened a coup d’état, since under U.S. law that would have meant suspending aid to the Egyptian military.

As it happened, however, American aid figured little in the calculations of Egypt’s new military leaders. The reason was simple enough: Saudi Arabia and the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, bitter opponents of the Morsi government, applauded the coup and poured at least $12 billion in cash into the country’s near-empty coffers.  In the end, making no one happy, the administration tried to split the difference: Obama declared that he would suspend the delivery of some big-ticket military items like Apache attack helicopters, Harpoon missiles, M1-A1 tank parts, and F-16 fighter planes, but let other aid to the military continue, including counterterrorism assistance and the sale of border security items. Such a split decision only served to underscore the administration’s lack of leverage in Cairo. Meanwhile, there are reports that Egypt’s new rulers may turn to Russia for arms in open defiance of a horrified Washington’s wishes.

Saudi and Israeli Punching Bag

The most surprising defection from the pro-American coalition in the Middle East is, however, Saudi Arabia. In part, that kingdom’s erratic behavior may result from a growing awareness among its ultraconservative, kleptocratic princelings that they face an increasingly uncertain future. Christopher Davidson’s new book, After the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies, outlines the many pressures building on the country.

One significant cause of instability, claims Davidson, is the “existence of substantial Western military bases on the Arabian Peninsula, [which are considered] an affront to Islam and to national sovereignty.” For decades, such an American military presence in the region provided a security blanket for the Saudi royals, making the country a virtual U.S. protectorate. Now, amid the turmoil that has followed the war in Iraq, the Arab Spring, and the rise of an assertive Iran, Saudi Arabia isn’t sure which way to turn, or whether the United States is friend or foe.

Since 2003, the Saudi rulers have found themselves increasingly unhappy with American policy. Riyadh, the area’s chief Sunni power, was apoplectic when the United States toppled Iraq’s Sunni leader Saddam Hussein and allowed Iran to vastly increase its influence in Baghdad. In 2011, the Saudi royal family blamed Washington for not doing more to prevent the collapse of the conservative and pro-Saudi Mubarak government in Egypt.

Now, the Saudis are on the verge of a complete break over Washington’s policies toward Syria and Iran. As the chief backers of the rebels in Syria, they were dismayed when Obama chose not to bomb military sites around Damascus. Because it views Iran through the lens of a regional Sunni-Shiite struggle for dominance, it is no less dismayed by the possible emergence of a U.S.-Iran accord from renewed negotiations over that country’s nuclear program.

To express its pique, its foreign minister abruptly canceled his address to the United Nations General Assembly in September, shocking U.N. members. Then, adding insult to injury, Saudi Arabia turned down a prestigious seat on the Security Council, a post for which it had long campaigned. “Upset at President Barack Obama’s policies on Iran and Syria,” reported Reuters, “members of Saudi Arabia’s ruling family are threatening a rift with the United States that could take the alliance between Washington and the kingdom to its lowest point in years.”

That news service quoted Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, as saying that his country was on the verge of a “major shift” in its relations with the U.S. Former head of Saudi intelligence Prince Turki al-Faisal lambasted America’s Syria policy this way: “The current charade of international control over Bashar’s chemical arsenal would be funny if it were not so blatantly perfidious. [It is] designed not only to give Mr. Obama an opportunity to back down [from military strikes], but also to help Assad to butcher his people.”

This is shocking stuff from America’s second most reliable ally in the region. As for reliable ally number one, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has visibly decided to be anything but a cooperative partner in the region, making Obama’s job more difficult at every turn. Since 2009, he has gleefully defied the American president, starting with his refusal to impose a freeze on illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank when specifically asked to do so by the president at the start of his first term. Meanwhile, most of the world has spent the past half-decade on tenterhooks over the possibility that his country might actually launch a much-threatened military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Since Hassan Rouhani was elected president of Iran and indicated his interest in reorienting policy to make a deal with the Western powers over its nuclear program, Israeli statements have become ever more shrill. In a September speech to the U.N. General Assembly, for instance, Netanyahu rolled out extreme rhetoric, claiming that Israel is “challenged by a nuclear-armed Iran that seeks our destruction.” This despite the fact that Iran possesses no nuclear weapons, has enriched not an ounce of uranium to weapons-grade level, and has probably not mastered the technology to manufacture a bomb. According to American intelligence reports, it has not yet even militarized its nuclear research.

Netanyahu’s speech was so full of hyperbole that observers concluded Israel was isolating itself from the rest of the world. “He was so anxious to make everything look as negative as possible he actually pushed the limits of credibility,” said Gary Sick, a former senior official in the Carter administration and an Iran expert. “He did himself harm by his exaggerations.”

Iran: Obama’s Ironic Beacon of Hope

Both Israel and Saudi Arabia are fearful that the Middle Eastern balance of power could be tipped against them if the United States and Iran are able to strike a deal. Seeking to throw the proverbial monkey wrench into the talks between Iran, the U.S., and the P5+1 powers (the permanent members of the U.N. security Council plus Germany), Israel has put forward a series of demands that go far beyond anything Iran would accept, or that the other countries would go along with. Before supporting the removal of international economic sanctions against Iran, Israel wants that country to suspend all enrichment of uranium, shut down its nuclear facilities, not be allowed any centrifuges to enrich uranium, abandon the heavy-water plant it is constructing to produce plutonium, permanently close its fortified underground installation at Fordo, and ship its stockpile of enriched uranium out of the country.

In contrast, it’s widely believed that the United States is ready to allow Iran to continue to enrich uranium, maintain some of its existing facilities, and retain a partial stockpile of enriched uranium for fuel under stricter and more intrusive inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Ironically, a U.S.-Iran détente is the one thing that could slow down or reverse the death spiral of American influence in the region. Iran, for instance, could be helpful in convincing President Assad of Syria to leave office in 2014, in advance of elections there, if radical Sunni Islamic organizations, including allies of al-Qaeda, are suppressed. Enormously influential in Afghanistan, Iran could also help stabilize that country after the departure of U.S. combat forces in 2014. And it could be enlisted to work alongside the United States and regional powers to stabilize Iraq.

More broadly, a U.S.-Iran entente might lead to a gradual de-escalation of the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf, including its huge naval forces, bases, and other facilities in Qatar, Bahrain, and Kuwait. It’s even conceivable that Iran could be persuaded to join other regional and global powers in seeking a just and lasting negotiated deal between Israel and the Palestinians. The United States and Iran have a number of common interests, including opposing al-Qaeda-style terrorism and cracking down on drug smuggling.

Of course, such a deal will be exceedingly difficult to nail down, if for no other reason than that the hardliners in both countries are determined to prevent it.

Right now, imagine the Obama administration as one of those vaudeville acts that keep a dozen plates spinning atop vibrating poles.  At just this moment in the Middle East, those “plates” are tipping in every direction. There’s still time to prevent them all from crashing to the ground, but it would take a masterful effort from the White House — and it’s far from clear that anyone there is up to the task.

Bob Dreyfuss is an independent investigative journalist based in Cape May, New Jersey, specializing in politics and national security. He is a contributing editor at the Nation, and his blog appears daily at TheNation.com. In the past, he has written extensively for Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, the American Prospect, the New Republic, and many other magazines. He is the author of Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook or Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse’s The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare.

Copyright 2013 Bob Dreyfuss

Jeremy Scahill: The Fantasy of a Clean War

6:30 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Cover of Dirty Wars

The epilogue to Jeremy Scahill’s important book on American warfare.

The foreign leaders are dropping like flies — to American surveillance. I’m talking about serial revelations that the National Security Agency has been spying on Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff, two Mexican presidents, Felipe Calderón (whose office the NSA called “a lucrative source”) and his successor Enrique Peña Nieto, at least while still a candidate, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. It’s now evidently part of the weekly news cycle to discover that the NSA has hacked into the emails or listened into the phone conversations of yet another allied leader. Reportedly, that agency has been listening in on the phone calls of at least 35 world leaders. Within 48 hours last week, President Obama was obliged to call an irritated President François Hollande, after Le Monde reported that the NSA was massively collecting French phone calls and emails, including those of politicians and business people, and received a call from an outraged Merkel, whose cell phone conversations were reportedly monitored by the NSA. Of course, when you build a global surveillance state and your activities, thanks to a massive leak of documents, become common knowledge, you have to expect global anger to rise and spread. With 196 countries on the planet, there are a lot of calls assumedly still to come in, even as the president and top Washington officials hem and haw about the necessity of maintaining the security of Americans while respecting the privacy of citizens and allies, refuse to directly apologize, claim that an “exhaustive” review of surveillance practices is underway, and hope that this, too, shall pass.

In the meantime, on a second front, the news is again bad for Washington, as upset and dismay once largely restricted to the tribal backlands of the planet seem to be spreading. I’m talking here about the global assassination campaigns being conducted from the White House, based in part on a “kill list” of terrorist suspects and using the president’s private air force, the growing drone fleets of the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command. In the last week, both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have come out with reports on the U.S. drone campaigns in Pakistan and Yemen debunking White House claims that few civilians are dying in those strikes and raising serious questions about their legality. In two of the six drone strikes it investigated in Yemen, Human Rights Watch reported the killing of “civilians indiscriminately in clear violation of the laws of war; the others may have targeted people who were not legitimate military objectives or caused disproportionate civilian deaths.” In a surprising development, Amnesty brought a powerful, historically resonant term to bear, claiming that some of the cases of civilian drone deaths it investigated in Pakistan might constitute “war crimes” for which those responsible should stand trial. (“Amnesty International has serious concerns that this attack violated the prohibition of the arbitrary deprivation of life and may constitute war crimes or extrajudicial executions.”)

And just arriving, reports from the U.N. special rapporteur on drones, Ben Emmerson, and its special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, Christof Heyns. It’s already clear that these will not please the White House, where the usual denials and self-justifications — however lame they may increasingly sound outside the United States — still rule the day. (“U.S. counterterrorism operations are precise, they are lawful, and they are effective.”) After a recent visit to Pakistan, Emmerson said, “The consequence of drone strikes has been to radicalize an entirely new generation.” A former high-level U.S. State Department official in Yemen claims that each U.S. drone strike in that country creates “40 to 60 new enemies of America.” Emmerson and Heyns are now demanding far greater “transparency” from a secretive Washington on the subject of its drone killings.

Call both the blanketing surveillance and the drone revelations symptoms of a larger disease. In the years before 9/11, the U.S. focused its global attentions on what it then called “rogue states.” Devoted since that date to perpetual war across significant parts of the planet and to a surveillance apparatus geared to leave no one anywhere in privacy, the U.S. now resembles a rogue superpower to an increasingly resistant and restless world. No single reporter has done more than Jeremy Scahill to bring us back news of how, in the post-9/11 years, Washington took its wars into the darkness, how it helped create a landscape of blowback abroad, and just how such roguery works when it comes to a superpower — from missile strikes in Yemen to a secret CIA prison in Somalia to kick-down-the-door killings of innocents by Special Operations types in Afghanistan. His bestselling book, Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield, is a revelation, a secret history of twenty-first-century war, American-style.

Today, as the drone story continues to unfold, as ever more countries once considered the sorts of allies that would never say no to a request from Washington, balk at, resist, or ignore Obama administration desires, it’s an honor to have the epilogue to Dirty Wars posted exclusively at TomDispatch for the first time, thanks to the kindness of Scahill’s publisher, Nation Books.  Consider it the gripping backstory for what, in time, could become the equivalent of a global uprising against the last superpower of planet Earth. Tom

Perpetual War
How Does the Global War on Terror Ever End?
By Jeremy Scahill

[This epilogue to Scahill’s bestselling book, Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield, is posted with the kind permission of its publisher, Nation Books.]

On January 21, 2013, Barack Obama was inaugurated for his second term as president of the United States. Just as he had promised when he began his first campaign for president six years earlier, he pledged again to turn the page on history and take U.S. foreign policy in a different direction. “A decade of war is now ending,” Obama declared. “We, the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war.”

Read the rest of this entry →

Tomgram: Engelhardt, What Planet Are We On?

6:36 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

[Note for TomDispatch Readers: Thought I might recommend a new little book series from the Nation magazine (everyone’s publishing these days!) -- classic essays by some of that mag’s best writers and among my own favorites, including Gore Vidal’s State of the Union, [Kurt] Vonnegut by the Dozen, and an upcoming volume by E.L. Doctorow.  Each is a guarantee of pleasure.  And here’s a small reminder: if you are an Amazon customer, travel to that site via any TomDispatch book link (or cover image link), and buy books we recommend or anything else whatsoever, book or not, we get a small cut of your purchase at no cost to you.  It’s a fine, no-pain-all-gain way to contribute to the site. Tom]

Why Washington Can’t Stop
The Coming Era of Tiny Wars and Micro-Conflicts
By Tom Engelhardt

In terms of pure projectable power, there’s never been anything like it.  Its military has divided the world — the whole planet — into six “commands.”  Its fleet, with 11 aircraft carrier battle groups, rules the seas and has done so largely unchallenged for almost seven decades.  Its Air Force has ruled the global skies, and despite being almost continuously in action for years, hasn’t faced an enemy plane since 1991 or been seriously challenged anywhere since the early 1970s.  Its fleet of drone aircraft has proven itself capable of targeting and killing suspected enemies in the backlands of the planet from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Yemen and Somalia with little regard for national boundaries, and none at all for the possibility of being shot down.  It funds and trains proxy armies on several continents and has complex aid and training relationships with militaries across the planet.  On hundreds of bases, some tiny and others the size of American towns, its soldiers garrison the globe from Italy to Australia, Honduras to Afghanistan, and on islands from Okinawa in the Pacific Ocean to Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.  Its weapons makers are the most advanced on Earth and dominate the global arms market.  Its nuclear weaponry in silos, on bombers, and on its fleet of submarines would be capable of destroying several planets the size of Earth.  Its system of spy satellites is unsurpassed and unchallenged.  Its intelligence services can listen in on the phone calls or read the emails of almost anyone in the world from top foreign leaders to obscure insurgents.  The CIA and its expanding paramilitary forces are capable of kidnapping people of interest just about anywhere from rural Macedonia to the streets of Rome and Tripoli.  For its many prisoners, it has set up (and dismantled) secret jails across the planet and on its naval vessels.  It spends more on its military than the next most powerful 13 states combined.  Add in the spending for its full national security state and it towers over any conceivable group of other nations.

In terms of advanced and unchallenged military power, there has been nothing like the U.S. armed forces since the Mongols swept across Eurasia.  No wonder American presidents now regularly use phrases like “the finest fighting force the world has ever known” to describe it.  By the logic of the situation, the planet should be a pushover for it.  Lesser nations with far lesser forces have, in the past, controlled vast territories.  And despite much discussion of American decline and the waning of its power in a “multi-polar” world, its ability to pulverize and destroy, kill and maim, blow up and kick down has only grown in this new century.

No other nation’s military comes within a country mile of it.  None has more than a handful of foreign bases.  None has more than two aircraft carrier battle groups.  No potential enemy has such a fleet of robotic planes.  None has more than 60,000 special operations forces.  Country by country, it’s a hands-down no-contest. The Russian (once “Red”) army is a shadow of its former self.  The Europeans have not rearmed significantly.  Japan’s “self-defense” forces are powerful and slowly growing, but under the U.S. nuclear “umbrella.”  Although China, regularly identified as the next rising imperial state, is involved in a much-ballyhooed military build-up, with its one aircraft carrier (a retread from the days of the Soviet Union), it still remains only a regional power.

Despite this stunning global power equation, for more than a decade we have been given a lesson in what a military, no matter how overwhelming, can and (mostly) can’t do in the twenty-first century, in what a military, no matter how staggeringly advanced, does and (mostly) does not translate into on the current version of planet Earth.

A Destabilization Machine

Let’s start with what the U.S. can do.  On this, the recent record is clear: it can destroy and destabilize.  In fact, wherever U.S. military power has been applied in recent years, if there has been any lasting effect at all, it has been to destabilize whole regions.

Back in 2004, almost a year and a half after American troops had rolled into a Baghdad looted and in flames, Amr Mussa, the head of the Arab League, commented ominously, “The gates of hell are open in Iraq.”  Although for the Bush administration, the situation in that country was already devolving, to the extent that anyone paid attention to Mussa’s description, it seemed over the top, even outrageous, as applied to American-occupied Iraq.  Today, with the latest scientific estimate of invasion- and war-caused Iraqi deaths at a staggering 461,000, thousands more a year still dying there, and with Syria in flames, it seems something of an understatement.

It’s now clear that George W. Bush and his top officials, fervent fundamentalists when it came to the power of U.S. military to alter, control, and dominate the Greater Middle East (and possibly the planet), did launch the radical transformation of the region.  Their invasion of Iraq punched a hole through the heart of the Middle East, sparking a Sunni-Shiite civil war that has now spread catastrophically to Syria, taking more than 100,000 lives there.  They helped turn the region into a churning sea of refugees, gave life and meaning to a previously nonexistent al-Qaeda in Iraq (and now a Syrian version of the same), and left the country drifting in a sea of roadside bombs and suicide bombers, and threatened, like other countries in the region, with the possibility of splitting apart.

And that’s just a thumbnail sketch.  It doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about destabilization in Afghanistan, where U.S. troops have been on the ground for almost 12 years and counting; Pakistan, where a CIA-run drone air campaign in its tribal borderlands has gone on for years as the country grew ever shakier and more violent; Yemen (ditto), as an outfit called al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula grew ever stronger; or Somalia, where Washington repeatedly backed proxy armies it had trained and financed, and supported outside incursions as an already destabilized country came apart at the seams and the influence of al-Shabab, an increasingly radical and violent insurgent Islamic group, began to seep across regional borders.  The results have always been the same: destabilization.

Consider Libya where, no longer enamored with boots-on-the-ground interventions, President Obama sent in the Air Force and the drones in 2011 in a bloodless intervention (unless, of course, you were on the ground) that helped topple Muammar Qaddafi, the local autocrat and his secret-police-and-prisons regime, and launched a vigorous young democracy… oh, wait a moment, not quite.  In fact, the result, which, unbelievably enough, came as a surprise to Washington, was an increasingly damaged country with a desperately weak central government, a territory controlled by a range of militias — some Islamic extremist in nature — an insurgency and war across the border in neighboring Mali (thanks to an influx of weaponry looted from Qaddafi’s vast arsenals), a dead American ambassador, a country almost incapable of exporting its oil, and so on.

Libya was, in fact, so thoroughly destabilized, so lacking in central authority that Washington recently felt free to dispatch U.S. Special Operations forces onto the streets of its capital in broad daylight in an operation to snatch up a long-sought terrorist suspect, an act which was as “successful” as the toppling of the Qaddafi regime and, in a similar manner, further destabilized a government that Washington still theoretically backed. (Almost immediately afterward, the prime minister found himself briefly kidnapped by a militia unit as part of what might have been a coup attempt.)

Wonders of the Modern World 

If the overwhelming military power at the command of Washington can destabilize whole regions of the planet, what, then, can’t such military power do?  On this, the record is no less clear and just as decisive.  As every significant U.S. military action of this new century has indicated, the application of military force, no matter in what form, has proven incapable of achieving even Washington’s most minimal goals of the moment.

Consider this one of the wonders of the modern world: pile up the military technology, pour money into your armed forces, outpace the rest of the world, and none of it adds up to a pile of beans when it comes to making that world act as you wish.  Yes, in Iraq, to take an example, Saddam Hussein’s regime was quickly “decapitated,” thanks to an overwhelming display of power and muscle by the invading Americans.  His state bureaucracy was dismantled, his army dismissed, an occupying authority established backed by foreign troops, soon ensconced on huge multibillion-dollar military bases meant to be garrisoned for generations, and a suitably “friendly” local government installed.

And that’s where the Bush administration’s dreams ended in the rubble created by a set of poorly armed minority insurgencies, terrorism, and a brutal ethnic/religious civil war.  In the end, almost nine years after the invasion and despite the fact that the Obama administration and the Pentagon were eager to keep U.S. troops stationed there in some capacity, a relatively weak central government refused, and they departed, the last representatives of the greatest power on the planet slipping away in the dead of night.  Left behind among the ruins of historic ziggurats were the “ghost towns” and stripped or looted U.S. bases that were to be our monuments in Iraq.

Today, under even more extraordinary circumstances, a similar process seems to be playing itself out in Afghanistan — another spectacle of our moment that should amaze us.  After almost 12 years there, finding itself incapable of suppressing a minority insurgency, Washington is slowly withdrawing its combat troops, but wants to leave behind on the giant bases we’ve built perhaps 10,000 “trainers” for the Afghan military and some Special Operations forces to continue the hunt for al-Qaeda and other terror types.

For the planet’s sole superpower, this, of all things, should be a slam dunk.  At least the Iraqi government had a certain strength of its own (and the country’s oil wealth to back it up).  If there is a government on Earth that qualifies for the term “puppet,” it should be the Afghan one of President Hamid Karzai.  After all, at least 80% (and possibly 90%) of that government’s expenses are covered by the U.S. and its allies, and its security forces are considered incapable of carrying on the fight against the Taliban and other insurgent outfits without U.S. support and aid.  If Washington were to withdraw totally (including its financial support), it’s hard to imagine that any successor to the Karzai government would last long.

How, then, to explain the fact that Karzai has refused to sign a future bilateral security pact long in the process of being hammered out?  Instead, he recently denounced U.S. actions in Afghanistan, as he had repeatedly done in the past, claimed that he simply would not ink the agreement, and began bargaining with U.S. officials as if he were the leader of the planet’s other superpower.

A frustrated Washington had to dispatch Secretary of State John Kerry on a sudden mission to Kabul for some top-level face-to-face negotiations.  The result, a reported 24-hour marathon of talks and meetings, was hailed as a success: problem(s) solved.  Oops, all but one.  As it turned out, it was the very same one on which the continued U.S. military presence in Iraq stumbled — Washington’s demand for legal immunity from local law for its troops.  In the end, Kerry flew out without an assured agreement.

Making Sense of War in the Twenty-First Century

Whether the U.S. military does or doesn’t last a few more years in Afghanistan, the blunt fact is this: the president of one of the poorest and weakest countries on the planet, himself relatively powerless, is essentially dictating terms to Washington — and who’s to say that, in the end, as in Iraq, U.S. troops won’t be forced to leave there as well?

Once again, military strength has not carried the day.  Yet military power, advanced weaponry, force, and destruction as tools of policy, as ways to create a world in your own image or to your own taste, have worked plenty well in the past.  Ask those Mongols, or the European imperial powers from Spain in the sixteenth century to Britain in the nineteenth century, which took their empires by force and successfully maintained them over long periods.

What planet are we now on?  Why is it that military power, the mightiest imaginable, can’t overcome, pacify, or simply destroy weak powers, less than impressive insurgency movements, or the ragged groups of (often tribal) peoples we label as “terrorists”? Why is such military power no longer transformative or even reasonably effective?  Is it, to reach for an analogy, like antibiotics?  If used for too long in too many situations, does a kind of immunity build up against it?

Let’s be clear here: such a military remains a powerful potential instrument of destruction, death, and destabilization.  For all we know — it’s not something we’ve seen anything of in these years — it might also be a powerful instrument for genuine defense.  But if recent history is any guide, what it clearly cannot be in the twenty-first century is a policymaking instrument, a means of altering the world to fit a scheme developed in Washington.  The planet itself and people just about anywhere on it seem increasingly resistant in ways that take the military off the table as an effective superpower instrument of state.

Washington’s military plans and tactics since 9/11 have been a spectacular train wreck.  When you look back, counterinsurgency doctrine, resuscitated from the ashes of America’s defeat in Vietnam, is once again on the scrap heap of history.  (Who today even remembers its key organizing phrase — “clear, hold, and build” — which now looks like the punch line for some malign joke?)  “Surges,” once hailed as brilliant military strategy, have already disappeared into the mists.  “Nation-building,” once a term of tradecraft in Washington, is in the doghouse.  “Boots on the ground,” of which the U.S. had enormous numbers and still has 51,000 in Afghanistan, are now a no-no.  The American public is, everyone universally agrees, “exhausted” with war.  Major American armies arriving to fight anywhere on the Eurasian continent in the foreseeable future?  Don’t count on it.

But lessons learned from the collapse of war policy?  Don’t count on that, either.  It’s clear enough that Washington still can’t fully absorb what’s happened.  Its faith in war remains remarkably unbroken in a century in which military power has become the American political equivalent of a state religion.  Our leaders are still high on the counterterrorism wars of the future, even as they drown in their military efforts of the present.  Their urge is still to rejigger and reimagine what a deliverable military solution would be.

Now the message is: skip those boots en masse — in fact, cut down on their numbers in the age of the sequester — and go for the counterterrorism package.  No more spilling of (American) blood.  Get the “bad guys,” one or a few at a time, using the president’s private army, the Special Operations forces, or his private air force, the CIA’s drones. Build new barebones micro-bases globally.  Move those aircraft carrier battle groups off the coast of whatever country you want to intimidate.

It’s clear we’re entering a new period in terms of American war making.  Call it the era of tiny wars, or micro-conflicts, especially in the tribal backlands of the planet.

So something is indeed changing in response to military failure, but what’s not changing is Washington’s preference for war as the option of choice, often of first resort.  What’s not changing is the thought that, if you can just get your strategy and tactics readjusted correctly, force will work.  (Recently, Washington was only saved from plunging into another predictable military disaster in Syria by an offhand comment of Secretary of State John Kerry and the timely intervention of Russian President Vladimir Putin.)

What our leaders don’t get is the most basic, practical fact of our moment: war simply doesn’t work, not big, not micro — not for Washington.  A superpower at war in the distant reaches of this planet is no longer a superpower ascendant but one with problems.

The U.S. military may be a destabilization machine.  It may be a blowback machine.  What it’s not is a policymaking or enforcement machine.

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture (now also in a Kindle edition), runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050.

[Note: A deep bow of thanks to Nick Turse for his continuing help and, above all, inspiration.]

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Copyright 2013 Tom Engelhardt