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Archive for September, 2009

Posted by Derrick Crowe on September 30th, 2009

Note: Derrick Crowe is the Afghanistan blog fellow for Brave New Foundation / The Seminal. Learn how the war in Afghanistan undermines U.S. security: watch Rethink Afghanistan (Part Six), & visit http://rethinkafghanistan.com/blog.

During his confirmation hearing, General McChrystal said:

American success in Afghanistan should be measured by “the number of Afghans shielded from violence,” not the number of enemy fighters killed, he said.

McChrystal is now running around demanding more troops for Afghanistan so he can increase “the number of Afghans shielded from violence.”

Yeah, about that:

U.S. troop levels by month compared with the number of civilians killed in each two-month period so far in 2009.

Check, please.

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Posted by Derrick Crowe on September 29th, 2009

Note: Derrick Crowe is the Afghanistan blog fellow for Brave New Foundation / The Seminal. You can learn more about the dangers posed to U.S. national security by the war in Afghanistan by watching Rethink Afghanistan (Part Six): Security, or by visiting http://rethinkafghanistan.com/blog.

Apparently I underestimated the U.S. government’s capacity for crazy.

Last week, I said:

The prospects for success of a quick, violent blow are dim. The hardened core of the Taliban is the Quetta Shura Taliban. It’s called the Quetta Shura Taliban because it’s based in Quetta, capital of Balochistan in Pakistan. That’s where we suspect Mullah Omar and possibly Osama bin Laden hide from U.S. forces. It’s also a major city of 750,000+ people, almost all of them non-combatants. Thus, our ability to strike the “violent blow” that could end the al-Qaida/Taliban threat (assuming we’re not willing to drop 600,000+ troops into Afghanistan tomorrow to suddenly begin a textbook counterinsurgency) would depend on our willingness to repeat the carnage of Fallujah 2004 in a city roughly twice its size. This move would ignite Pakistan, to put it mildly, and it would put their nuclear arsenal on the game board in the scramble.

In the days after my attribution of a modicum of good sense and humanitarian concern to the U.S. government, the Telegraph reported that the U.S. is threatening to launch drone attacks against suspected Taliban targets in Quetta. The story labels this potential move a “major escalation,” and they’re not kidding. (more…)

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Posted by Derrick Crowe on September 26th, 2009

(Derrick Crowe is the Afghanistan blog fellow for Brave New Foundation / The Seminal. You can learn more about civilian casualties caused by the war in Afghanistan by watching Rethink Afghanistan (Part Four): Civilian Casualties, or by visiting http://rethinkafghanistan.com/blog.)

The UN Secretary General today published the latest edition of the quarterly report, The situation in Afghanistan and its implications for international peace and security, which reveals that August 2009 was the deadliest month so far in 2009 for civilians. According to the report:

The Mission recorded 1,500 civilian casualties between January and August, with August being the deadliest month since the beginning of 2009. These figures reflect an increasing trend in insecurity over recent months and in elections-related violence. Almost three times as many civilian deaths (68 per cent) were attributed to anti-Government elements activities than to pro-Government forces (23 per cent). As detailed in the UNAMA mid-year bulletin on the protection of civilians in armed conflict, the most deadly tactics used and which accounted for the largest number of civilian casualties in the conflict to date were attributable to planted improvised explosive devices, and suicide attacks carried out by anti-Government elements accounted for 39.5 per cent of fatalities. Air strikes by pro-Government forces accounted for 20 per cent of fatalities.

By comparing the last quarterly report with the year-long totals from this report, we find:

  • From January to May there were 800 civilian deaths, with 33 percent (264) caused by pro-Afghan-government forces (PGFs).
  • From June to August there were 700 civilian deaths. 23 percent (161) caused by PGFs.

Comments made by military officials earlier this month indicated they would use this new UN report to show that their “new” strategy was working, but today’s report shows that such an argument would be a clear case of moving goalposts. During his confirmation hearing, General Stanley McChrystal said that:

American success in Afghanistan should be measured by “the number of Afghans shielded from violence,” not the number of enemy fighters killed, he said.

Several months later, during a month in which American forces had been greatly increased for the purpose of providing election-related security, we stumble into the deadliest month for civilians so far in a year on track to be the most violent year since the U.S. invasion.

It’s not working.

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Posted by Tom Engelhardt on September 25th, 2009


Front and center in the debate over the Afghan War these days are General Stanley “Stan” McChrystal, Afghan war commander, whose “classified, pre-decisional” and devastating report — almost eight years and at least $220 billion later, the war is a complete disaster — was conveniently, not to say suspiciously, leaked to Bob Woodward of the Washington Post by we-know-not-who at a particularly embarrassing moment for Barack Obama; Admiral Michael “Mike” Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who has been increasingly vocal about a “deteriorating” war and the need for more American boots on the ground; and the president himself, who blitzed every TV show in sight last Sunday and Monday for his health reform program, but spent significant time expressing doubts about sending more American troops to Afghanistan. (“I’m not interested in just being in Afghanistan for the sake of being in Afghanistan… or sending a message that America is here for the duration.”)

On the other hand, here’s someone you haven’t seen front and center for a while: General David Petraeus. He was, of course, George W. Bush’s pick to lead the president’s last-ditch effort in Iraq. He was the poster boy for Bush’s military policies in his last two years. He was the highly praised architect and symbol of “the surge.” He appeared repeatedly, his chest a mass of medals and ribbons, for heavily publicized, widely televised congressional testimony, complete with charts and graphs, that was meant, at least in part, for the American public. He was the man who, to use an image from that period which has recently resurfaced, managed to synchronize the American and Baghdad “clocks,” pacifying for a time both the home and war fronts.

He never met a journalist, as far as we can tell, he didn’t want to woo. (And he clearly won over the influential Tom Ricks, then of the Washington Post, who wrote The Gamble, a bestselling paean to him and his sub-commanders.) From the look of it, he’s the most political general to come down the pike since, in 1951 in the midst of the Korean War, General Douglas MacArthur said his goodbyes to Congress after being cashiered by President Truman for insubordination — for, in effect, wanting to run his own war and the foreign policy that went with it. It was Petraeus who brought Vietnam-era counterinsurgency doctrine (COIN) back from the crypt, overseeing the writing of a new Army counterinsurgency manual that would make it central to both the ongoing wars and what are already being referred to as the “next” ones. (more…)

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Posted by Derrick Crowe on September 24th, 2009

Note: Derrick Crowe is the Afghanistan blog fellow for Brave New Foundation / The Seminal. You can learn more about the dangers posed to U.S. national security by the war in Afghanistan by watching Rethink Afghanistan (Part Six): Security, or by visiting http://rethinkafghanistan.com/blog.

The Pentagon expects to receive General McChrystal’s troop request by the end of the week (remember, you heard it here first). If we accept Defense Department spokesman Geoff Morrell’s remarks during today’s press briefing, Defense Secretary Gates will pocket the document until the Obama Administration completes its strategic review. But, Morrell is clearly working to prevent the document from becoming a “moment of truth” for the secretary and the president, and I would be very surprised if a strategy assessment took place without a cost/benefit analysis. After all, a discussion on strategy not constrained by resource considerations would produce strategies as useful as a retirement plan that included “win the lottery” as a necessary step.

Looking for evaluative tools for the upcoming troop request, I flipped through my copy of The 33 Strategies of War by Robert Greene and came across this passage:

…Rommel once made a distinction between a gamble and a risk. Both cases involve an action with only a chance of success, a chance that is heightened by acting with boldness. The difference is that with a risk, if you lose, you can recover: your reputation will suffer no long-term damage, your resources will not be depleted, and you can return to your original position with acceptable losses. With a gamble, on the other hand, defeat can lead to a slew of problems that are likely to spiral out of control. …[I]f you encounter difficulties in a gamble, it becomes harder to pull out–you realize that the stakes are too high; you cannot afford to lose. So you try harder to rescue the situation, often making it worse and sinking deeper in to the hole that you cannot get out of. People are drawn into gambles by their emotions…Taking risks is essential; gambling is foolhardy.

The worst way to end…a war…is slowly and painfully…Before entering any action, you must calculate in precise terms your exit strategy…If the answers…seem to vague and full of speculation, if success seems all too alluring and failure somewhat dangerous, you are more than likely taking a gamble. Your emotions are leading you into a situation that could end up a quagmire.

Before that happens, catch yourself. And if you do find you have made this mistake, you have only two rational solutions: either end the conflict as quickly as you can, with a strong, violent blow aimed to win, accepting the costs and knowing they are better than a slow and painful death, or cut your losses and quit without delay. Never let pride or concern for your reputation pull you farther into the morass; both will suffer far greater blows by your persistence. Short-term defeat is better than long-term disaster.

Greene writes these words interpreting the Soviet experience in Afghanistan. They apply equally well to the situation in which the United States finds itself in the same country.
(more…)

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Posted by Guy Saperstein on September 23rd, 2009

Afghanistan policy has been under review by the Obama Administration and a classified recommendation written by General Stanley McChrystal apparently was submitted to Obama on August 3 recommending increasing troops in Afghanistan.  Two days ago, the report was leaked to the press.  This leak could not have been inadvertent, as the leaked copy had been heavily redacted, with classified materials deleted.  It is hard to see this as anything but an attempt to box in Obama and put pressure on him to agree to more troops, whether any good strategy supports investing more troops, or not.  But before anyone, let alone President Obama, starts bending to military pressure, let’s ask how much deference U.S. generals deserve.

We all respect the commitment and sacrifice of American soldiers—they are doing difficult and dangerous work few of us would want to do and they do it under terrible conditions, tremendous pressure and great threat to life—but should the military establishment and its misadventures be beyond criticism?  Georges Clemenceau, former French Prime Minister and the French War Minister who negotiated the Versailles Treaty ending WWI, once said, “War is much too serious a matter to be entrusted to the military.”  He had watched Allied generals misperceive and misunderstand strategy in WWI and become bogged down in deadly trenches for four years, killing millions in the process.  Do our generals deserve any more respect?  Is their advice any better?

For most of the past 60 years, the American military mostly has been unprepared for the conflicts America has gotten into, starting with Korea.  Fifteen years later, the military was planning to fight a land war with the Soviet Union, but not a jungle war in Vietnam; it lacked the training and equipment for jungle combat and it had no clue either how to fight an insurgency or how to contest the political aspects of the war, which ultimately led to American defeat.  Thirty years later, after not anticipating or thwarting 9/11, the military still was equipped mainly to fight a massive land war in Europe, not an insurgency either in Iraq or Afghanistan and again has failed to comprehend the political dimensions of those wars.

We have spent, and continue to spend, a gigantic [and unsustainable] portion of the nation’s treasure on defense—in the process crowding out important social services—but has the National Security State and over-reliance on the military provided security?  It has built hugely expensive weapons systems which have little or no relevance to current threats, yet it failed to anticipate and avert 9/11; it has failed to bring to justice its chief architects; it has failed to devise an effective response to Islamic extremism; it has failed to provide security in Iraq and Afghanistan, despite the expenditure of $3 trillion [when downstream costs are considered]; and, it has abandoned America’s reputation for being a just nation which adheres to law and ideals.  If this were a business, would anyone invest in it?

The competence level of the American military is not something to be emulated; it is closer to the level of General Motors  and Wall Street.  Generals Patreaus and McChrystal are no more worthy of admiration than the progression of incompetent CEOs who drove GM into the ground and the crooks who pilfered the public with exotic financial instruments for their short-term profit.  Their advice, which has been wrong in the past about Afghanistan, should neither be accepted at face value nor allowed to trump President Obama’s political judgments about the value and costs of continuing to wage war.  Military advice has the same relationship to good advice as military music has to good music.

We need to start measuring the military by the same standards we measure other costly investments:  Is it working?  Is it effective?  Is it making the world more safe—or less?  Is America safer because we spent $3 trillion in Iraq??

The questions we need to be asking about Afghanistan are not included in General McChrystal’s call for a “new strategy,” but they include the following:  Why are we fighting the Taliban?  The Taliban never attacked America and no one suggests they have the capacity or interest in attacking the American homeland; they are fighting Americans because Americans occupy their country.  General Patreaus acknowledges al Qaeda left Afghanistan long ago, but in the absence of al Qaeda we have simply substituted the Taliban as our enemy without asking whether this makes any sense.  And if the argument is that we have to stay in Afghanistan so that al Qaeda doesn’t return, does that mean forever—at $100+ billion per year?  What will it ultimately cost and how many American men and women will die for this mistaken policy?

Does it mean we should invade and occupy all other nations where al Qaeda might pop up?  Already, al Qaeda is operating in Somalia and Indonesia, and should we do what about all the many weak and failed nations which potentially could be launching pads for terrorism—do we invade and occupy them all, as well?  With the American economy faltering and falling deeper into debt to its most important strategic rival, China, can we afford the luxury of fighting expensive wars wherever terrorism potentially might arise?  What are the real strategic threats to the U.S. and is spending hundreds of billions more in Afghanistan getting in the way of more important security issues?

The Pentagon is now trying to muscle President Obama into supporting the same costly policies which have failed in Afghanistan for eight years.  He should be reminded that Abraham Lincoln made a career of firing ineffective generals and got reelected running, ironically, against one of the generals he had fired.  President Truman fired one of the most popular generals in American history [MacArthur] and got reelected shortly thereafter.  President Obama cannot allow himself to be blackmailed by midgets and incompetents like McChrystal—particularly in defense of a war which already has become very unpopular.  Once that kind of blackmail works, it never stops.

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Posted by Derrick Crowe on September 22nd, 2009

Note: Derrick Crowe is the Afghanistan blog fellow for Brave New Foundation / The Seminal. You can learn more about the dangers posed to U.S. national security by the war in Afghanistan by watching Rethink Afghanistan (Part Six): Security, or by visiting http://rethinkafghanistan.com/blog.

General McChrystal’s “new strategy” has been leaked to press in what looks to me like a continued effort to box in the President on troop increases. Here’s the core of the document:

The New Strategy: Focus on the Population

…To accomplish the mission and defeat the insurgency we also require a properly resourced strategy built on four main pillars:

  1. Improve effectiveness through greater partnering with ANSF. We will increase the size and accelerate the growth of the ANSF, with a radically improved partnership at every level, to improve effectiveness and prepare them to take the lead in security operations.
  2. Prioritize responsive and accountable governance. We must assist in improving governance at all levels through both formal and traditional mechanisms.
  3. Gain the initiative. Our first imperative, in a series of operational stages, is to gain the initiative and reverse the insurgency’s momentum.
  4. Focus resources. We will prioritize available resources to those critical areas where vulnerable populations are most threatened.

The first two pillars seem to have been written while someone was smoking hashish. Let’s take them one at a time.

(more…)

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Posted by Tom Engelhardt on September 21st, 2009

Cross-posted at TomDispatch.com.

In Washington, calls are increasing, especially among anxious Democrats, for the president to commit to training ever more Afghan troops and police rather than sending in more American troops. Huge numbers for imagined future Afghan army and police forces are now bandied about in Congress and the media — though no one stops to wonder what Afghanistan, the fourth poorest country on the planet, might actually be like with a combined security force of 400,000. Not a “democracy,” you can put your top dollar on that. And with a gross national product of only $23 billion (a striking percentage of which comes from the drug trade) and an annual government budget of only about $600 million, it’s not one that could faintly maintain such a force either. Put bluntly, if U.S. officials were capable of building such a force, a version of Colin Powell’s Pottery Barn rule for Iraq would kick in and we, the American taxpayers, would own it for all eternity.

(more…)

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Posted by Derrick Crowe on September 21st, 2009

Note: Derrick Crowe is the Afghanistan blog fellow for Brave New Foundation / The Seminal. You can learn more about the dangers posed to U.S. national security by the war in Afghanistan by watching Rethink Afghanistan (Part Six): Security, or by visiting http://rethinkafghanistan.com/blog.

The insistence of a powerful group of policymakers and military commanders on the use of counterinsurgency strategy subverted U.S. humanitarian efforts in service of a corrupt system of violence, according to an op-ed from Feinstein International Center’s Andrew Wilder. The piece summarizes recent research conducted by him and his colleagues on the effect of aid spending in Afghanistan. Wilder concludes that no evidence exists that our “humanitarian spending” is endearing us to Afghan hearts and minds.

From the op-ed on Boston.com [h/t Steve Hynd]:

Instead of winning hearts and minds, Afghan perceptions of aid and aid actors are overwhelmingly negative. And instead of contributing to stability, in many cases aid is contributing to conflict and instability. For example, we heard many reports of the Taliban being paid by donor-funded contractors to provide security (or not to create insecurity), especially for their road-building projects. In an ethnically and tribally divided society like Afghanistan, aid can also easily generate jealousy and ill will by inadvertently helping to consolidate the power of some tribes or factions at the expense of others – often pushing rival groups into the arms of the Taliban.

The most destabilizing effect of aid, however, is its role in fueling massive corruption, which in turn is eroding the legitimacy of the government. Our research suggests that we have failed to win Afghan hearts and minds not because we have spent too little money, but because we have spent too much too quickly, often in insecure environments with extremely limited implementation and oversight capacity.

Significantly, the main cause of insecurity identified by most Afghans we interviewed was not poverty, or a lack of reconstruction, or even the Taliban, but their highly corrupt and ineffective government

…[F]oreign aid should focus on promoting humanitarian and development objectives, where there is evidence of positive impact, rather than on promoting counterinsurgency objectives, where there is not.

In other words, we should help people for their own sake. Who would have thought?

From top to bottom, the U.S. effort in Afghanistan commits the fundamental sin of domination: the valuation of people as means instead of as ends. Counterinsurgency values the well-being of a population only insofar as that population supports our local ally, who in turn is only valuable insofar is (s)he supports our goals in the region. People do not have intrinsic value. Their relationship to the government or to the insurgency renders them an asset or a liability, and nothing more. COIN is not a strategy–it’s sociopathy. (The COIN manual uses a fantastic euphemism on page xxxix for its sociopathy: “Counterinsurgency favors peace over justice.” What they mean is that the well-being and/or grievance of a population suffering under the boot of our allied government does not matter to the counterinsurgent nearly as much as the stability of a government helping us get what we want.)  It should not surprise us that when people discover that they are a target of sociopathic manipulation posing as humanitarian aid, they get angry.

Afghan hearts and minds don’t need to change–ours do.

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Posted by Tom Engelhardt on September 18th, 2009

by TomDispatch

“War is peace” was one of the memorable slogans on the facade of the Ministry of Truth, Minitrue in “Newspeak,” the language invented by George Orwell in 1948 for his dystopian novel 1984. Some 60 years later, a quarter-century after Orwell’s imagined future bit the dust, the phrase is, in a number of ways, eerily applicable to the United States.

Last week, for instance, a New York Times front-page story by Eric Schmitt and David Sanger was headlined “Obama Is Facing Doubts in Party on Afghanistan, Troop Buildup at Issue.” It offered a modern version of journalistic Newspeak.

“Doubts,” of course, imply dissent, and in fact just the week before there had been a major break in Washington’s ranks, though not among Democrats. The conservative columnist George Will wrote a piece offering blunt advice to the Obama administration, summed up in its headline: “Time to Get Out of Afghanistan.” In our age of political and audience fragmentation and polarization, think of this as the Afghan version of Vietnam’s Cronkite moment.

The Times report on those Democratic doubts, on the other hand, represented a more typical Washington moment. Ignored, for instance, was Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold’s end-of-August call for the president to develop an Afghan withdrawal timetable. The focus of the piece was instead an upcoming speech by Michigan Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Armed Services Committee. He was, Schmitt and Sanger reported, planning to push back against well-placed leaks (in the Times, among other places) indicating that war commander General Stanley McChrystal was urging the president to commit 15,000 to 45,000 more American troops to the Afghan War.

Here, according to the two reporters, was the gist of Levin’s message about what everyone agrees is a “deteriorating” U.S. position: “[H]e was against sending more American combat troops to Afghanistan until the United States speeded up the training and equipping of more Afghan security forces.”

Think of this as the line in the sand within the Democratic Party, and be assured that the debates within the halls of power over McChrystal’s troop requests and Levin’s proposal are likely to be fierce this fall. Thought about for a moment, however, both positions can be summed up with the same word: More.

The essence of this “debate” comes down to: More of them versus more of us (and keep in mind that more of them — an expanded training program for the Afghan National Army — actually means more of “us” in the form of extra trainers and advisors). In other words, however contentious the disputes in Washington, however dismally the public now views the war, however much the president’s war coalition might threaten to crack open, the only choices will be between more and more.

No alternatives are likely to get a real hearing. Few alternative policy proposals even exist because alternatives that don’t fit with “more” have ceased to be part of Washington’s war culture. No serious thought, effort, or investment goes into them. Clearly referring to Will’s column, one of the unnamed “senior officials” who swarm through our major newspapers made the administration’s position clear, saying sardonically, according to the Washington Post, “I don’t anticipate that the briefing books for the [administration] principals on these debates over the next weeks and months will be filled with submissions from opinion columnists… I do anticipate they will be filled with vigorous discussion… of how successful we’ve been to date.”

State of War

Because the United States does not look like a militarized country, it’s hard for Americans to grasp that Washington is a war capital, that the United States is a war state, that it garrisons much of the planet, and that the norm for us is to be at war somewhere at any moment. Similarly, we’ve become used to the idea that, when various forms of force (or threats of force) don’t work, our response, as in Afghanistan, is to recalibrate and apply some alternate version of the same under a new or rebranded name — the hot one now being “counterinsurgency” or COIN — in a marginally different manner. When it comes to war, as well as preparations for war, more is now generally the order of the day.

This wasn’t always the case. The early Republic that the most hawkish conservatives love to cite was a land whose leaders looked with suspicion on the very idea of a standing army. They would have viewed our hundreds of global garrisons, our vast network of spies, agents, Special Forces teams, surveillance operatives, interrogators, rent-a-guns, and mercenary corporations, as well as our staggering Pentagon budget and the constant future-war gaming and planning that accompanies it, with genuine horror.

The question is: What kind of country do we actually live in when the so-called U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) lists 16 intelligence services ranging from Air Force Intelligence, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Defense Intelligence Agency to the National Reconnaissance Office and the National Security Agency? What could “intelligence” mean once spread over 16 sizeable, bureaucratic, often competing outfits with a cumulative 2009 budget estimated at more than $55 billion (a startling percentage of which is controlled by the Pentagon)? What exactly is so intelligent about all that? And why does no one think it even mildly strange or in any way out of the ordinary?

What does it mean when the most military-obsessed administration in our history, which, year after year, submitted ever more bloated Pentagon budgets to Congress, is succeeded by one headed by a president who ran, at least partially, on an antiwar platform, and who has now submitted an even larger Pentagon budget? What does this tell you about Washington and about the viability of non-militarized alternatives to the path George W. Bush took? What does it mean when the new administration, surveying nearly eight years and two wars’ worth of disasters, decides to expand the U.S. Armed Forces rather than shrink the U.S. global mission?

What kind of a world do we inhabit when, with an official unemployment rate of 9.7% and an underemployment rate of 16.8%, the American taxpayer is financing the building of a three-story, exceedingly permanent-looking $17 million troop barracks at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan? This, in turn, is part of a taxpayer-funded $220 million upgrade of the base that includes new “water treatment plants, headquarters buildings, fuel farms, and power generating plants.” And what about the U.S. air base built at Balad, north of Baghdad, that now has 15 bus routes, two fire stations, two water treatment plants, two sewage treatment plants, two power plants, a water bottling plant, and the requisite set of fast-food outlets, PXes, and so on, as well as air traffic levels sometimes compared to those at Chicago’s O’Hare International?

What kind of American world are we living in when a plan to withdraw most U.S. troops from Iraq involves the removal of more than 1.5 million pieces of equipment? Or in which the possibility of withdrawal leads the Pentagon to issue nearly billion-dollar contracts (new ones!) to increase the number of private security contractors in that country?

What do you make of a world in which the U.S. has robot assassins in the skies over its war zones, 24/7, and the “pilots” who control them from thousands of miles away are ready on a moment’s notice to launch missiles — “Hellfire” missiles at that — into Pashtun peasant villages in the wild, mountainous borderlands of Pakistan and Afghanistan? What does it mean when American pilots can be at war “in” Afghanistan, 9 to 5, by remote control, while their bodies remain at a base outside Las Vegas and then can head home past a sign that warns them to drive carefully because this is “the most dangerous part of your day”?

What does it mean when, for our security and future safety, the Pentagon funds the wildest ideas imaginable for developing high-tech weapons systems, many of which sound as if they came straight out of the pages of sci-fi novels? Take, for example, Boeing’s advanced coordinated system of hand-held drones, robots, sensors, and other battlefield surveillance equipment slated for seven Army brigades within the next two years at a cost of $2 billion and for the full Army by 2025; or the Next Generation Bomber, an advanced “platform” slated for 2018; or a truly futuristic bomber, “a suborbital semi-spacecraft able to move at hypersonic speed along the edge of the atmosphere,” for 2035? What does it mean about our world when those people in our government peering deepest into a blue-skies future are planning ways to send armed “platforms” up into those skies and kill more than a quarter century from now?

And do you ever wonder about this: If such weaponry is being endlessly developed for our safety and security, and that of our children and grandchildren, why is it that one of our most successful businesses involves the sale of the same weaponry to other countries? Few Americans are comfortable thinking about this, which may explain why global-arms-trade pieces don’t tend to make it onto the front pages of our newspapers. Recently, the Times Pentagon correspondent Thom Shanker, for instance, wrote a piece on the subject which appeared inside the paper on a quiet Labor Day. “Despite Slump, U.S. Role as Top Arms Supplier Grows” was the headline. Perhaps Shanker, too, felt uncomfortable with his subject, because he included the following generic description: “In the highly competitive global arms market, nations vie for both profit and political influence through weapons sales, in particular to developing nations…” The figures he cited from a new congressional study of that “highly competitive” market told a different story: The U.S., with $37.8 billion in arms sales (up $12.4 billion from 2007), controlled 68.4% of the global arms market in 2008. Highly competitively speaking, Italy came “a distant second” with $3.7 billion. In sales to “developing nations,” the U.S. inked $29.6 billion in weapons agreements or 70.1% of the market. Russia was a vanishingly distant second at $3.3 billion or 7.8% of the market. In other words, with 70% of the market, the U.S. actually has what, in any other field, would qualify as a monopoly position — in this case, in things that go boom in the night. With the American car industry in a ditch, it seems that this (along with Hollywood films that go boom in the night) is what we now do best, as befits a war, if not warrior, state. Is that an American accomplishment you’re comfortable with?

On the day I’m writing this piece, “Names of the Dead,” a feature which appears almost daily in my hometown newspaper, records the death of an Army private from DeKalb, Illinois, in Afghanistan. Among the spare facts offered: he was 20 years old, which means he was probably born not long before the First Gulf War was launched in 1990 by President George H.W. Bush. If you include that war, which never really ended — low-level U.S. military actions against Saddam Hussein’s regime continued until the invasion of 2003 — as well as U.S. actions in the former Yugoslavia and Somalia, not to speak of the steady warfare underway since November 2001, in his short life, there was hardly a moment in which the U.S. wasn’t engaged in military operations somewhere on the planet (invariably thousands of miles from home). If that private left a one-year-old baby behind in the States, and you believe the statements of various military officials, that child could pass her tenth birthday before the war in which her father died comes to an end. Given the record of these last years, and the present military talk about being better prepared for “the next war,” she could reach 2025, the age when she, too, might join the military without ever spending a warless day. Is that the future you had in mind?

Consider this: War is now the American way, even if peace is what most Americans experience while their proxies fight in distant lands. Any serious alternative to war, which means our “security,” is increasingly inconceivable. In Orwellian terms then, war is indeed peace in the United States and peace, war.

American Newspeak

Newspeak, as Orwell imagined it, was an ever more constricted form of English that would, sooner or later, make “all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended,” he wrote in an appendix to his novel, “that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought… should be literally unthinkable.”

When it comes to war (and peace), we live in a world of American Newspeak in which alternatives to a state of war are not only ever more unacceptable, but ever harder to imagine. If war is now our permanent situation, in good Orwellian fashion it has also been sundered from a set of words that once accompanied it.

It lacks, for instance, “victory.” After all, when was the last time the U.S. actually won a war (unless you include our “victories” over small countries incapable of defending themselves like the tiny Caribbean Island of Grenada in 1983 or powerless Panama in 1989)? The smashing “victory” over Saddam Hussein in the First Gulf War only led to a stop-and-start conflict now almost two decades old that has proved a catastrophe. Keep heading backward through the Vietnam and Korean Wars and the last time the U.S. military was truly victorious was in 1945.

But achieving victory no longer seems to matter. War American-style is now conceptually unending, as are preparations for it. When George W. Bush proclaimed a Global War on Terror (aka World War IV), conceived as a “generational struggle” like the Cold War, he caught a certain American reality. In a sense, the ongoing war system can’t absorb victory. Any such endpoint might indeed prove to be a kind of defeat.

No longer has war anything to do with the taking of territory either, or even with direct conquest. War is increasingly a state of being, not a process with a beginning, an end, and an actual geography.

Similarly drained of its traditional meaning has been the word “security” — though it has moved from a state of being (secure) to an eternal, immensely profitable process whose endpoint is unachievable. If we ever decided we were either secure enough, or more willing to live without the unreachable idea of total security, the American way of war and the national security state would lose much of their meaning. In other words, in our world, security is insecurity.

As for “peace,” war’s companion and theoretical opposite, though still used in official speeches, it, too, has been emptied of meaning and all but discredited. Appropriately enough, diplomacy, that part of government which classically would have been associated with peace, or at least with the pursuit of the goals of war by other means, has been dwarfed by, subordinated to, or even subsumed by the Pentagon. In recent years, the U.S. military with its vast funds has taken over, or encroached upon, a range of activities that once would have been left to an underfunded State Department, especially humanitarian aid operations, foreign aid, and what’s now called nation-building. (On this subject, check out Stephen Glain’s recent essay, “The American Leviathan” in the Nation magazine.)

Diplomacy itself has been militarized and, like our country, is now hidden behind massive fortifications, and has been placed under Lord-of-the-Flies-style guard. The State Department’s embassies are now bunkers and military-style headquarters for the prosecution of war policies; its officials, when enough of them can be found, are now sent out into the provinces in war zones to do “civilian” things.

And peace itself? Simply put, there’s no money in it. Of the nearly trillion dollars the U.S. invests in war and war-related activities, nothing goes to peace. No money, no effort, no thought. The very idea that there might be peaceful alternatives to endless war is so discredited that it’s left to utopians, bleeding hearts, and feathered doves. As in Orwell’s Newspeak, while “peace” remains with us, it’s largely been shorn of its possibilities. No longer the opposite of war, it’s just a rhetorical flourish embedded, like one of our reporters, in Warspeak.

What a world might be like in which we began not just to withdraw our troops from one war to fight another, but to seriously scale down the American global mission, close those hundreds of bases — recently, there were almost 300 of them, macro to micro, in Iraq alone — and bring our military home is beyond imagining. To discuss such obviously absurd possibilities makes you an apostate to America’s true religion and addiction, which is force. However much it might seem that most of us are peaceably watching our TV sets or computer screens or iPhones, we Americans are also — always — marching as to war. We may not all bother to attend the church of our new religion, but we all tithe. We all partake. In this sense, we live peaceably in a state of war.

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. He also edited The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire (Verso, 2008), an alternative history of the mad Bush years.

Copyright 2009 Tom Engelhardt

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