The Terrorism Issue That Wasn’t Discussed September 12, 2011Posted by rogerhollander in War on Terror.
Tags: al-Qaeda, anti-americanism, civilian casualties, counter terrorism, daniel benjamin, drone missile, gareth porter, global terrorism, jihad, jihadist movement, Middle East, obama's wars, predator missiles, roger hollander, terrorism, war on terror
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Roger’s note: Back in the good old days of Barry Goldwater conservatism a right-wing nutcase by the name of John Stormer wrote a book called “None Dare Call it Treason.” I never read it but it probably asserted something like the US government secretly turning the country over to the Communists. In reading the article I have posted below, I cannot help but think of the word “Treason.” If it is true that the government will not abandon its wars in the Middle East for fear of admitting that it sent Americans to die in vain; if it is true that it knowingly is promoting terrorism with its drone missile program (and this is not to mention the lies that justified the invasion of Iraq, American soldiers dying for the Oil Industry, or the self-defeating Imperial ambition fueled by the military-industrial complex); then are not the leaders of the government, from the president on down, guilty of nothing less than treason? There … I “dared” to say it.
Published on Monday, September 12, 2011 by CommonDreams.org
In the commentary on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, the news and infotainment media have predictably framed the discussion by the question of how successful the CIA and the military have been in destroying al Qaeda. Absent from the torrent of opinion and analysis was any mention of how the U.S. military occupation of Muslim lands and wars that continue to kill Muslim civilians fuel jihadist sentiment that will keep the threat of terrorism high for many years to come.
The failure to have that discussion is not an accident. In December 2007, at a conference in Washington, D.C. on al Qaeda, former State Department Coordinator for Counterterrorism Daniel Benjamin offered a laundry list of things the United States could do to reduce the threat from al Qaeda. But he said nothing about the most important thing to be done: pledging to the Islamic world that the United States would pull its military forces out of Afghanistan and Iraq and end its warfare against those in Islamic countries resisting U.S. military presence.
During the coffee break, I asked him whether that item shouldn’t have been on his list. “You’re right,” he answered. And then he added, “But we can’t do that.”
“Why not,” I asked.
“Because,” he said, “we would have to tell the families of the soldiers who have died in those wars that their loved ones died in vain.”
His explanation was obviously bogus. But in agreeing that America’s continuing wars actually increase the risk of terrorism against the United States, Benjamin was merely reflecting the conclusions that the intelligence and counter-terrorism communities had already reached.
The National Intelligence Estimate on “Trends in Global Terrorism” issued in April 2006 concluded that the war in Iraq was “breeding deep resentment of U.S. involvement in the Muslim World and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement.” It found that “activists identifying themselves as jihadists, although a small percentage of Muslims, are increasing in both number and geographic dispersion.” And in a prophetic warning, it said “the operational threat from self-radicalized cells will grow in importance…particularly abroad but also at home.”
Given the way intelligence assessments get watered down as they ascend the hierarchy of officials, these were remarkably alarming conclusions about the peril that U.S. occupation of Iraq posed to the United States. And that alarm was shared by at least some counter-terrorism officials as well. Robert Grenier, who had been head of the CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Center in 2005-06, was quoted in the July 25, 2007 Los Angeles Times as saying the war “has convinced many Muslims that the United States is the enemy of Islam and is attacking Muslims, and they have become jihadists as a result of their experience in Iraq.”
As the war in Iraq wound down, the U.S. war in Afghanistan — especially the war being waged by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) — was generating more hatred for the United States. As JSOC scaled up its “night raids” in Afghanistan, it never got the right person in more than 50 percent of the raids, as even senior commanders in JSOC recently admitted to the Washington Post. That indicated that a very large proportion of those killed and detained were innocent civilians. Not surprisingly, the populations of entire districts and provinces were enraged by those raids.
If there is one place on earth where it is obviously irrational to antagonize the male population on a long-term basis, it is the Pashtun region that straddles Afghanistan and Pakistan, with its tribal culture of honor and revenge for the killing of family and friends.
Meanwhile, after fleeing from Afghanistan to Pakistan in 2001, al Qaeda had rebuilt a large network of Pashtun militants in the Pashtun northwest. As the murdered Pakistani journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad recounted in Inside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, President Pervez Musharraf, under pressure from Washington, began in 2003 to use the Pakistani army to try to destroy the remnants of al Qaeda by force with helicopter strikes and ground forces. But instead of crushing al Qaeda, those operations further radicalized the population of those al Qaeda base areas, by convincing them that the Pakistani government and army was merely a tool of U.S. control.
Frustrated by the failure of Musharraf to finish off al Qaeda and by the swift rise of the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, the Bush administration launched a drone war that killed large numbers of civilians in northwest Pakistan. An opinion survey by New American Foundation in the region last year found that 77 percent believed the real purpose of the U.S. “war on terror” is to “weaken and divide the Muslim world” and to “ensure American domination.” And more than two-thirds of the entire population of Pakistan view the United States as the enemy, not as a friend, according to the Pew Global Attitudes Project.
The CIA and the Bush and Obama administrations understood that drone strikes could never end the threat of terrorist plots in Pakistan, as outgoing CIA Director Michael Hayden had told the incoming President, according to Bob Woodward’s Obama’s Wars. And if the Obama administration didn’t understand then that the drone war was stoking popular anger at the government and the United States, it certainly does now. Former DIrector of National Intelligence Dennis Blair has pointed out that “hatred of America is increasing in Pakistan” because of the drone strikes.
Yet the night raids and the drone strikes continue, as though the risk of widespread and intense anger toward the United States in those countries doesn’t make any difference to the policymakers.
There is only one way to understand this conundrum: there are winners and losers in the “war on terrorism”. Ordinary Americans are clearly the losers, and the institutions and leaders of the military, the Pentagon and the CIA and their political and corporate allies are the winners. They have accumulated enormous resources and power in a collapsing economy and society.
They are not going to do anything about the increased risk to Americans from the hatred their wars have provoked until they are forced to do so by a combination of resistance from people within those countries and an unprecedented rebellion by millions of Americans. It’s long past time to start organizing that rebellion.
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist on U.S. national security policy who has been independent since a brief period of university teaching in the 1980s. Dr. Porter is the author of four books, the latest of which is Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam (University of California Press, 2005). He has written regularly for Inter Press Service on U.S. policy toward Iraq and Iran since 2005.
Would We Be Better Off If John McCain Were President? August 1, 2011Posted by rogerhollander in Barack Obama, John McCain.
Tags: 2008 election, democratic party, domestic policy, Economic Crisis, economy, foreign policy, John McCain, obama administration, obama's wars, politics, presidency, Republican Party, roger hollander, war
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corporations behind them. A President McCain may have at least triggered a true
Democrats were united on one issue in the 2008 presidential election: the
absolute disaster that a John McCain victory would have produced.
And they were right. McCain as president would clearly have produced a long
string of catastrophes: He would probably have approved a failed troop surge in
Afghanistan, engaged in worldwide extrajudicial assassination, destabilized nuclear-armed
Pakistan, failed to bring Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu to the negotiating table, expanded prosecution of whistle-blowers, sought to
expand executive branch power, failed to close Guantanamo, failed to act on climate change, pushed both nuclear energy and opened new
areas to domestic oil drilling, failed to reform the financial sector enough to prevent another financial catastrophe, supported an extension of the
Bush tax cuts for the rich, presided over a growing divide between rich and poor, and failed to lower the jobless rate.
Nothing reveals the true state of American politics today more than the fact
that Democratic President Barack Obama has undertaken all of these actions, and
even more significantly, left the Democratic Party far weaker than it would have
been had McCain been elected. Few issues are more important than seeing behind
the screen of a myth-making mass media, and understanding what this demonstrates
about how power in America really works—and what needs to be done to change
First and foremost, McCain would have undoubtedly selected as treasury
secretary an individual nominated by Wall Street—which has a stranglehold on the
economy due to its enjoying 30 to 40 percent of all corporate profits. If he
didn’t select Tim Geithner, a reliable servant of financial interests whose
nomination might have allowed McCain to trumpet his “maverick” credentials,
whoever he did select would clearly have also moved to bail out the financial
institutions and allow them to water down needed financial reforms.
Ditto for the head of his National Economic Council. Although appointing
Larry Summers might have been a bit of a stretch, despite his yeoman work in destroying financial regulation—thus enriching
his old boss Robert Rubin and helping cause the Crash of 2008—McCain could
easily have found a Jack Kemp-like Republican “supply-sider” who would have
duplicated Summers’ signal achievement of expanding the deficit to the highest
levels since 1950 (though perhaps with a slightly higher percentage of tax cuts
than the Obama stimulus). The economy would have continued to sputter along,
with growth rates and joblessness levels little different from today’s, and
possibly even worse.
But McCain’s election would have produced a major political difference: It
would have increased Democratic clout in the House and Senate. First off, there
would have been no Tea Party, no “don’t raise the debt limit unless we gut the
poor,” no “death panel” myth, no “Obama Youth” nonsense. Although there would
have been plenty of criticism from the likes of Rush Limbaugh, the fact remains
that McCain, a Republican war hero, would never have excited the Tea Party
animus as did the “Secret-Muslim Kenyan-Born Big-Government Fascist White-Hating
Antichrist” Obama. Glenn Beck would have remained a crazed nonentity and been
dropped far sooner by Fox News than he was. And Vice President Sarah Palin,
despised by both McCain and his tough White House staff, would have been
deprived of any real power and likely tightly muzzled against criticizing
McCain’s relatively centrist (compared to her positions) policies.
Voters would almost certainly have increased Democratic control of the House
and Senate in 2010, since the Republicans would have been seen as responsible
for the weak U.S. economy. Democrats might even have achieved the long-desired
60 percent majority needed to kill the filibuster in one or both houses.
Democratic control of the House and Senate fostered by disastrous Republican
policies would have severely limited McCain’s ability (as occurred with George
W. Bush) to weaken Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment insurance
and other programs that aid those most in need. (Yes, domestic spending might
have been cut less if McCain had won.)
Had McCain proposed “health insurance reform,” because health insurers saw a
golden opportunity to increase their customer base and profits while retaining
their control, the Democrats would at least have passed a “public option” as
their price for support. And possible Health and Human Services Secretary Newt
Gingrich—placed in that position in a clever move to keep him away from economic
or foreign policy—might have even accelerated needed improvements in
computerizing patient records and other high-tech measures needed to cut health
care costs, actions that he touted in his book on the subject.
In foreign and military policy, McCain would surely have approved Gen. David
Petraeus’ “Afghanistan surge,” possibly increasing the number of U.S. troops
there by 40,000 instead of 33,500. But Gen. Stanley McChrystal would probably
have remained at the helm in Afghanistan, since he and his aides would never
have disparaged McCain to Rolling Stone. McChrystal
might have continued a “counterinsurgency” strategy, observing relatively strict
rules of engagement, unlike his successor, Petraeus, who tore up those rules and
has instead unleashed a brutal cycle of “counterterror” violence in southern
Afghanistan. (Yes, far fewer Afghan civilians might have died had McCain
McCain, like Obama, would probably have destabilized nuclear-armed Pakistan
and strengthened militant forces there by expanding drone strikes and pushing
the Pakistani military to launch disastrous offensives into tribal areas. And he
would have given as much support as has Obama to Israeli Prime Minister
Netanyahu’s opposition to a peace deal because he believes that present policies
of strangling Gaza, annexing East Jerusalem, expanding West Bank settlements and
walling off Palestinians are succeeding. (It is possible that a McCain secretary
of state might not have incited violence against unarmed American citizens—as
did Hillary Clinton when she stated that Israelis, who
killed nine unarmed members of the 2010 Gaza flotilla, “have the right to defend
themselves” against letter-carrying 2011 Gaza flotilla members.)
While McCain would have wanted to keep 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan
until 2014, he might have been forced to reduce their numbers, as has Obama. For
McCain would have faced a strengthened and emboldened Democratic Congress, which
might have seen electoral gold in responding to polls indicating the public had
turned against the Afghanistan War—as well as a far stronger peace movement
united against Republicans instead of divided as it now is between the desires
for peace and seeing an Obama win in 2012.
Most significantly, if McCain had won, not only would Democrats be looking at
a Democratic landslide in the 2012 presidential race, but the newly elected
Democratic president in 2013 might enjoy both a 60 percent or higher majority in
both houses and a clear public understanding that it was Republican policies
that had sunk the economy. He or she might thus be far better positioned to
enact substantive reforms than was Obama in 2008, or will Obama even if he is
re-elected in 2012.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office in March 1933 after a 42-month
Depression blamed entirely on the Republicans. Although he had campaigned as a
moderate, objective conditions both convinced him of the need for fundamental
change—creating a safety net including Social Security, strict financial
regulation, programs to create jobs, etc.—and gave him the congressional
pluralities he needed to achieve them. A Democratic president taking office in
2013 after 12 years of disastrous Republican economic misrule might well have
been likewise pushed and enabled by objective events to create substantive
Furious debate rages among Obama’s Democratic critics today on why he has
largely governed on the big issues as John McCain would have done. Some believe
he retains his principles but has been forced to compromise by political
realities. Others are convinced he was a manipulative politico who lacked any
real convictions in the first place.
But there is a far more likely—and disturbing—possibility. Based on those who
knew him and his books, there is little reason to doubt that the
pre-presidential Obama was a college professor-type who shared the belief system
of his liberalish set: that ending climate change and reducing nuclear weapons
were worthy goals, that it was important to “reset” U.S. policy toward the
Muslim world, that torture and assassination were bad things, that
Canadian-style single-payer health insurance made sense, that whistle-blowing
and freedom of the press should be protected, Congress should have a say in
whether the executive puts the nation into war, and that government should
support community development and empowering poor communities.
Upon taking office, however, Obama—whatever his belief system at that
point—found that he was unable to accomplish these goals for one basic reason:
The president of the United States is far less powerful than media myth
portrays. Domestic power really is in the hands of economic elites and their
lobbyists, and foreign policy really is controlled by U.S. executive branch
national security managers and a “military-industrial complex.” If a president
supports their interests, as did Bush in invading Iraq, he or she can do a lot
of damage. But, absent a crisis, a president who opposes these elites—as Obama
discovered when he tried in the fall of 2009 to get the military to offer him an
alternative to an Afghanistan troop surge—is relatively powerless.
Whether a Ronald Reagan expanding government and running large deficits in
the 1980s despite his stated belief that government was the problem, or a Bill
Clinton imposing a neoliberal regime impoverishing hundreds of millions in the
Third World in the 1990s despite his rhetorical support for helping the poor,
anyone who becomes president has little choice but to serve the institutional
interests of a profoundly amoral and violent executive branch and the
corporations behind them.
The U.S. executive branch functions to promote its version of U.S. economic
and geopolitical interests abroad—including engaging in massive violence which
has killed, wounded or made homeless more than 21 million people in Indochina
and Iraq combined. And it functions at home to maximize the interests of the
corporations and individuals who fund political campaigns—today supported by a
U.S. Supreme Court whose politicized decision to expand corporations’ control
over elections has made a mockery of the very notion of “checks and balances.”
The executive branch’s power extends to the mass media, most of whose
journalists are dependent on executive information leaks and paychecks from
increasingly concentrated media corporations. They thus serve executive power
far more than they challenge it.
No one more demonstrates what happens to a human being who joins the
executive branch than Hillary Clinton, a former peace movement supporter whose
1969 Wellesley commencement address stated that “our prevailing, acquisitive, and
competitive corporate life is not the way of life for us. We’re searching for
more immediate, ecstatic and penetrating modes of living”; praised “a lot of the
New Left [that] harkens back to a lot of the old virtues”; and decried “the
hollow men of anger and bitterness, the bountiful ladies of righteous
degradation, all must be left to a bygone age.” Clinton the individual served on
the board of the Children’s Defense Fund, promoted helping the poor at home and
Third World women abroad and at one point was even often compared to Eleanor
Although her transformation began once she decided to try to become
president, it became most visible after she joined the executive branch as
secretary of state. The former peace advocate has now become a major advocate
for war-making, a scourge of whistle-blowers and a facilitator of Israeli
But while rich and powerful elites have always ruled in America, their power
has periodically been successfully challenged at times of national crisis: the
Civil War, the Progressive era, the Depression. America is clearly headed for
such a moment in the coming decade, as its economy continues to decline due to a
parasitic Wall Street, mounting debt, strong economic competitors, overspending
on the military, waste in the private health care sector and elites declaring
class war against a majority of Americans.
Naomi Klein has written penetratingly of Disaster Capitalism, which
occurs when financial and corporate elites benefit from the economic crises they
cause. But the reverse has also often proved true: a kind of “Disaster
Progressivism” often occurs when self-interested elites cause so much suffering
that policies favoring democracy and the majority become possible.
The United States will clearly face such a crisis in the coming decade. It is
understandable that many Americans will want to focus on re-electing Obama in
2012. Although Democrats and the country would have been better off if McCain
had won in 2008, this is not necessarily true if a Republican wins in
2012—especially if the GOP nominates Sarah Palin or Michele Bachmann.
But however important the 2012 election, far more energy needs to be devoted
to building mass organizations that challenge elite power and develop the kinds
of policies—including massive investment in a “clean energy economic
revolution,” a carbon tax and other tough measures to stave off climate change,
regulating and breaking up the financial sector, cost-effective entitlements
like single-payer health insurance, and public financing of primary and general
elections—which alone can save America and its democracy in the painful decade
the New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Republic, and other
publications. He is the author of several books on the Indochina War.
Obama’s Flailing Wars May 17, 2010Posted by rogerhollander in Barack Obama, Iraq and Afghanistan, Pakistan, War.
Tags: afghan escalation, Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, al-Qaeda, drone missiles, hillary clinton, james jones, john kerry, Karzai, mccrystal, obama's wars, pakistan, pakistani army, pakistani taliban, roger hollander, Taliban, tom englehardt, war
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A Study in BP-Style “Pragmatism”
by Tom Engelhardt
On stage, it would be farce. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, it’s bound to play out as tragedy.
Less than two months ago, Barack Obama flew into Afghanistan for six hours — essentially to read the riot act to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, whom his ambassador had only months before termed “not an adequate strategic partner.” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen followed within a day to deliver his own “stern message.”
While still on Air Force One, National Security Adviser James Jones offered reporters a version of the tough talk Obama was bringing with him. Karzai would later see one of Jones’s comments and find it insulting. Brought to his attention as well would be a newspaper article that quoted an anonymous senior U.S. military official as saying of his half-brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, a reputedly corrupt powerbroker in the southern city of Kandahar: “I’d like him out of there… But there’s nothing that we can do unless we can link him to the insurgency, then we can put him on the [target list] and capture and kill him.” This was tough talk indeed.
At the time, the media repeatedly pointed out that President Obama, unlike his predecessor, had consciously developed a standoffish relationship with Karzai. Meanwhile, both named and anonymous officials regularly castigated the Afghan president in the press for stealing an election and running a hopelessly corrupt, inefficient government that had little power outside Kabul, the capital. A previously planned Karzai visit to Washington was soon put on hold to emphasize the toughness of the new approach.
The administration was clearly intent on fighting a better version of the Afghan war with a new commander, a new plan of action, and a well-tamed Afghan president, a client head of state who would finally accept his lesser place in the greater scheme of things. A little blunt talk, some necessary threats, and the big stick of American power and money were sure to do the trick.
Meanwhile, across the border in Pakistan, the administration was in an all-carrots mood when it came to the local military and civilian leadership — billions of dollars of carrots, in fact. Our top military and civilian officials had all but taken up residence in Islamabad. By March, for instance, Admiral Mullen had already visited the country 15 times and U.S. dollars (and promises of more) were flowing in. Meanwhile, U.S. Special Operations Forces were arriving in the country’s wild borderlands to train the Pakistani Frontier Corps and the skies were filling with CIA-directed unmanned aerial vehicles pounding those same borderlands, where the Pakistani Taliban, al-Qaeda, and other insurgent groups involved in the Afghan War were located.
In Pakistan, it was said, a crucial “strategic relationship” was being carefully cultivated. As the New York Times reported, “In March, [the Obama administration] held a high-level strategic dialogue with Pakistan’s government, which officials said went a long way toward building up trust between the two sides.” Trust indeed.
Skip ahead to mid-May and somehow, like so many stealthy insurgents, the carrots and sticks had crossed the poorly marked, porous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan heading in opposite directions. Last week, Karzai was in Washington being given “the red carpet treatment” as part of what was termed an Obama administration “charm offensive” and a “four-day love fest.”
The president set aside a rare stretch of hours to entertain Karzai and the planeload of ministers he brought with him. At a joint news conference, Obama insisted that “perceived tensions” between the two men had been “overstated.” Specific orders went out from the White House to curb public criticism of the Afghan president and give him “more public respect” as “the chief U.S. partner in the war effort.”
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton assured Karzai of Washington’s long-term “commitment” to his country, as did Obama and Afghan War commander General Stanley McChrystal. Praise was the order of the day.
John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, interrupted a financial reform debate to invite Karzai onto the Senate floor where he was mobbed by senators eager to shake his hand (an honor not bestowed on a head of state since 1967). He was once again our man in Kabul. It was a stunning turnaround: a president almost without power in his own country had somehow tamed the commander-in-chief of the globe’s lone superpower.
Meanwhile, Clinton, who had shepherded the Afghan president on a walk through a “private enclave” in Georgetown and hosted a “glittering reception” for him, appeared on CBS’s “60 Minutes” to flay Pakistan. In the wake of an inept failed car bombing in Times Square, she had this stern message to send to the Pakistani leadership: “We want more, we expect more… We’ve made it very clear that if, heaven forbid, an attack like this that we can trace back to Pakistan were to have been successful, there would be very severe consequences.” Such consequences would evidently include a halt to the flow of U.S. aid to a country in economically disastrous shape. She also accused at least some Pakistani officials of “practically harboring” Osama bin Laden. So much for the carrots.
According to the Washington Post, General McChrystal delivered a “similar message” to the chief of staff of the Pakistani Army. To back up Clinton’s public threats and McChrystal’s private ones, hordes of anonymous American military and civilian officials were ready to pepper reporters with leaks about the tough love that might now be in store for Pakistan. The same Post story, for instance, spoke of “some officials… weighing in favor of a far more muscular and unilateral U.S. policy. It would include a geographically expanded use of drone missile attacks in Pakistan and pressure for a stronger U.S. military presence there.”
According to similar accounts, “more pointed” messages were heading for key Pakistanis and “new and stiff warnings” were being issued. Americans were said to be pushing for expanded Special Operations training programs in the Pakistani tribal areas and insisting that the Pakistani military launch a major campaign in North Waziristan, the heartland of various resistance groups including, possibly, al-Qaeda. “The element of threat” was now in the air, according to Tariq Fatemi, a former Pakistani ambassador, while in press reports you could hear rumblings about an “internal debate” in Washington that might result in more American “boots on the ground.”
In other words, in the space of two months the Obama administration had flip-flopped when it came to who exactly was to be pressured and who reassured. A typically anonymous “former U.S. official who advises the administration on Afghan policy” caught the moment well in a comment to the Wall Street Journal. “This whole bending over backwards to show Karzai the red carpet,” he told journalist Peter Spiegel, “is a result of not having had a concerted strategy for how to grapple with him.”
On a larger scale, the flip-flop seemed to reflect tactical and strategic incoherence — and not just in relation to Karzai. To all appearances, when it comes to the administration’s two South Asian wars, one open, one more hidden, Obama and his top officials are flailing around. They are evidently trying whatever comes to mind in much the manner of the oil company BP as it repeatedly fails to cap a demolished oil well 5,000 feet under the waves in the Gulf of Mexico. In a sense, when it comes to Washington’s ability to control the situation, Pakistan and Afghanistan might as well be 5,000 feet underwater. Like BP, Obama’s officials, military and civilian, seem to be operating in the dark, using unmanned robotic vehicles. And as in the Gulf, after each new failure, the destruction only spreads.
For all the policy reviews and shuttling officials, the surging troops, extra private contractors, and new bases, Obama’s wars are worsening. Lacking is any coherent regional policy or semblance of real strategy — counterinsurgency being only a method of fighting and a set of tactics for doing so. In place of strategic coherence there is just one knee-jerk response: escalation. As unexpected events grip the Obama administration by the throat, its officials increasingly act as if further escalation were their only choice, their fated choice.
This response is eerily familiar. It permeated Washington’s mentality in the Vietnam War years. In fact, one of the strangest aspects of that war was the way America’s leaders — including President Lyndon Johnson — felt increasingly helpless and hopeless even as they committed themselves to further steps up the ladder of escalation.
We don’t know what the main actors in Obama’s war are feeling. We don’t have their private documents or their secret taped conversations. Nonetheless, it should ring a bell when, as wars devolve, the only response Washington can imagine is further escalation.
Washington Boxed In
By just about every recent account, including new reports from the independent Government Accountability Office and the Pentagon, the U.S. mission in Afghanistan is going dreadfully, even as the Taliban insurgency gains potency and expands. This spring, preparing for his first relatively minor U.S. offensive in Marja, a Taliban-controlled area of Helmand Province, General McChrystal confidently announced that, after the insurgents were dislodged, an Afghan “government in a box” would be rolled out. From a governing point of view, however, the offensive seems to have been a fiasco. The Taliban is now reportedly re-infiltrating the area, while the governmental apparatus in that nation-building “box” has proven next to nonexistent, corrupt, and thoroughly incompetent.
Today, according to a report by the International Council on Security and Development (ICOS), the local population is far more hostile to the American effort. According to the ICOS, “61% of Afghans interviewed feel more negative about NATO forces after Operation Moshtarak than they did before the February military offensive in Marja.”
As Alissa Rubin of the New York Times summed up the situation in Afghanistan more generally:
“Even as American troops clear areas of militants, they find either no government to fill the vacuum, as in Marja, or entrenched power brokers, like President Karzai’s brother in Kandahar, who monopolize NATO contracts and other development projects and are resented by large portions of the population. In still other places, government officials rarely show up at work and do little to help local people, and in most places the Afghan police are incapable of providing security. Corruption, big and small, remains an overwhelming complaint.”
In other words, the U.S. really doesn’t have an “adequate partner,” and this is all the more striking since the Taliban is by no stretch of the imagination a particularly popular movement of national resistance. As in Vietnam, a counterinsurgency war lacking a genuine governmental partner is an oxymoron, not to speak of a recipe for disaster.
Not surprisingly, doubts about General McChrystal’s war plan are reportedly spreading inside the Pentagon and in Washington, even before it’s been fully launched. The major U.S. summer “operation” — it’s no longer being labeled an “offensive” — in the Kandahar region already shows signs of “faltering” and its unpopularity is rising among an increasingly resistant local population. In addition, civilian deaths from U.S. and NATO actions are distinctly on the rise and widely unsettling to Afghans. Meanwhile, military and police forces being trained in U.S./NATO mentoring programs considered crucial to Obama’s war plans are proving remarkably hapless.
McClatchy News, for example, recently reported that the new Afghan National Civil Order Police (ANCOP), a specially trained elite force brought into the Marja area and “touted as the country’s best and brightest” is, according to “U.S. military strategists[,] plagued by the same problems as Afghanistan’s conventional police, who are widely considered corrupt, ineffective and inept.” Drug use and desertions in ANCOP have been rife.
And yet, it seems as if all that American officials can come up with, in response to the failed Times Square car bombing and the “news” that the bomber was supposedly trained in Waziristan by the Pakistani Taliban, is the demand that Pakistan allow “more of a boots-on-the-ground strategy” and more American trainers into the country. Such additional U.S. forces would serve only “as advisers and trainers, not as combat forces.” So the mantra now goes reassuringly, but given the history of the Vietnam War, it’s a cringe-worthy demand.
In the meantime, the Obama administration has officially widened its targeting in the CIA drone war in the Pakistani borderlands to include low-level, no-name militants. It is also ratcheting up such attacks, deeply unpopular in a country where 64% of the inhabitants, according to a recent poll, already view the United States as an “enemy” and only 9% as a “partner.”
Since the Times Square incident, the CIA has specifically been striking North Waziristan, where the Pakistani army has as yet refrained from launching operations. The U.S., as the Nation’s Jeremy Scahill reports, has also increased its support for the Pakistani Air Force, which will only add to the wars in the skies of that country.
All of this represents escalation of the “covert” U.S. war in Pakistan. None of it offers particular hope of success. All of it stokes enmity and undoubtedly encourages more “lone wolf” jihadis to lash out at the U.S. It’s a formula for blowback, but not for victory.
BP-Style Pragmatism Goes to War
One thing can be said about the Bush administration: it had a grand strategic vision to go with its wars. Its top officials were convinced that the American military, a force they saw as unparalleled on planet Earth, would be capable of unilaterally shock-and-awing America’s enemies in what they liked to call “the arc of instability” or “the Greater Middle East” (that is, the oil heartlands of the planet). Its two wars would bring not just Afghanistan and Iraq, but Iran and Syria to their knees, leaving Washington to impose a Pax Americana on the Middle East and Central Asia (in the process of which groups like Hamas and Hezbollah would be subdued and anti-American jihadism ended).
They couldn’t, of course, have been more wrong, something quite apparent to the Obama team. Now, however, we have a crew in Washington who seem to have no vision, great or small, when it comes to American foreign or imperial policy, and who seem, in fact, to lack any sense of strategy at all. What they have is a set of increasingly discredited tactics and an approach that might pass for good old American see-what-works “pragmatism,” but these days might more aptly be labeled “BP-style pragmatism.”
The vision may be long gone, but the wars live on with their own inexorable momentum. Add into the mix American domestic politics, which could discourage any president from changing course and de-escalating a war, and you have what looks like a fatal — and fatally expensive — brew.
We’ve moved from Bush’s visionary disasters to Obama’s flailing wars, while the people of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq continue to pay the price. If only we could close the curtain on this strange mix of farce and tragedy, but evidently we’re still stuck in act four of a five-act nightmare.
Even as our Afghan and Pakistani wars are being sucked dry of whatever meaning might remain, the momentum is in only one direction — toward escalation. A thousand repetitions of an al-Qaeda-must-be-destroyed mantra won’t change that one bit. More escalation, unfortunately, is yet to come.
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. He is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of the Cold War and beyond, as well as of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing. His latest book, The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s (Haymarket Books), will be published in June.
[Note on Sources: Let me offer one of my periodic appreciative bows to several websites I rely on for crucial information and interpretation when it comes to America’s wars: Juan Cole’s invaluable, often incandescent, Informed Comment blog, Antiwar.com (especially Jason Ditz’s remarkable daily war news summaries), the thoughtful framing and good eye of Paul Woodward at the War in Context website, and Katherine Tiedemann’s concise, useful daily briefs of the most interesting mainstream reportage on Afghanistan and Pakistan at the AfPak Channel website. A special bow to historian Marilyn Young, author of the classic book The Vietnam Wars, who keeps me abreast of the latest thinking on all sorts of war-related subjects via her own informal information service for friends and fellow historians.]
© 2010 TomDispatch.com
Tom Engelhardt runs the Nation Institute’s Tomdispatch.com (“a regular antidote to the mainstream media”) and is the co-founder of the American Empire Project. His most recent book is, The American Way of War: How The Planet’s Garrison State Brought Itself to Ruin. He is the editor of The World According to TomDispatch: America and the Age of Empire and Mission Unaccomplished: TomDispatch Interviews with American Iconoclasts and Dissenters (Nation Books), the first collection of Tomdispatch interviews. His book, The End of Victory Culture (University of Massachusetts Press), has been thoroughly updated in a newly issued edition that deals with victory culture’s crash-and-burn sequel in Iraq.