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Archive for January, 2012

Posted by alexthurston on January 12th, 2012

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.

Here’s the ad for this moment in Washington (as I imagine it): Militarized superpower adrift and anxious in alien world. Needs advice. Will pay. Pls respond qkly. PO Box 1776-2012, Washington, DC.

Here’s the way it actually went down in Washington last week: a triumphant performance by a commander-in-chief who wants you to know that he’s at the top of his game.

When it came to rolling out a new 10-year plan for the future of the U.S. military, the leaks to the media began early and the message was clear. One man is in charge of your future safety and security. His name is Barack Obama. And — not to worry — he has things in hand.

Unlike the typical president, so the reports went, he held six (count ‘em: six!) meetings with top Pentagon officials, the Joint Chiefs, the service heads, and his military commanders to plan out the next decade of American war making. And he was no civilian bystander at those meetings either. On a planet where no other power has more than two aircraft carriers in service, he personally nixed a Pentagon suggestion that the country’s aircraft carrier battle groups be reduced from 11 to 10, lest China think our power-projection capabilities were weakening in Asia.

His secretary of defense, Leon Panetta, spared no words when it came to the president’s role, praising his “vision and guidance and leadership” (as would Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin E. Dempsey). Panetta described Obama’s involvement thusly: “[T]his has been an unprecedented process, to have the president of the United States participate in discussions involving the development of a defense strategy, and to spend time with our service chiefs and spend time with our combatant commanders to get their views.”

In other words, Obama taking ownership of the rollout of “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense,” a 16-page document summarizing a review of America’s strategic interests, defense priorities, and military spending. Its public unveiling was to reflect the steady hand of a commander-in-chief destined to be in charge of American security for years to come.

The president even made a “rare visit” to the Pentagon. There, he was hailed as the first occupant of the Oval Office ever to make comments, no less present a new “more realistic” strategic guidance document, from its press office. All of this, in turn, was billed as introducing “major change” into the country’s military stance, leading to (shades of former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld) a “leaner, meaner” force, slimmed down and recalibrated for economic tough times and a global “moment of transition.”

As political theater, it couldn’t have been smarter. For a president, vulnerable like all Democrats to charges of national security weakness in an election year, it was a chance for great photo ops and headlines. And it left his Republican opponents (Ron Paul, of course, excepted) in the dust, sputtering, fuming, and complaining that he was “leading from behind” and “imperiling” the nation.

Even better, in an election season which has mesmerized the media, not a single reporter or pundit seemed to notice that, whatever the new Pentagon plan might mean for the U.S. military globally, it was great domestic politics for a president whose second term was in peril.

Another “Mission Accomplished” Moment?

The actual Pentagon planning document, released the day of the president’s Pentagon appearance, might as well have been written in cuneiform script or hieroglyphics. Just about any military future might have been read into or out of its purposely foggy, not to say impenetrable, pages. That, too, seemed politically canny, offering the president a militarized version of have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too-ism.

While the document only referred to the Pentagon budget-cutting process that had been making headlines for weeks in the most oblique manner, the briefings offered by the president, the secretary of defense, and other top officials highlighted those “cuts”: $487 billion over the next decade. It was the sort of thing that should have made any deficit hawk’s heart flutter. Yet somehow — a bow to defense hawks? — the same budget, already humongous from an unprecedented 12 straight years of expansion, was, Obama assured his audience, actually slated to keep on growing.

Like a magician pulling the proverbial rabbit from the hat, the president described the situation this way: “Over the next 10 years, the growth in the defense budget will slow, but the fact of the matter is this: It will still grow, because we have global responsibilities that demand our leadership. In fact, the defense budget will still be larger than it was toward the end of the Bush administration.”

This magic trick was only possible because those headlined cuts were to come largely from the Pentagon’s “projected defense spending.” You’ll get the idea if you imagine an obese foodie announcing that he’s going to “diet” by cutting back on his dreams of future feasts, even as he modestly increases his actual caloric intake.

Surrounded by Panetta, Dempsey, the Joint Chiefs, and the service secretaries, the president had so much more to offer. Those nasty, unwinnable, nation-building-style counterinsurgency wars “with large military footprints” were now a thing of the past. On them, the tide was, as he so poetically put it, receding. Yes, there would be losers — Army and Marine Corps troop strength was slated to drop by perhaps 80,000 to 100,000 in the coming decade — but weren’t they already the losers of wars no one wanted?

Listening to his presentation and those to follow, you could have been pardoned for imagining that we were already practically out of Afghanistan and looking to a time when everything military would be just cool as hell. In that future, there would be nothing but neat, high-tech military operations (and war toys) to the horizon.

These would include our latest perfect weapon, the pilotless drone; nifty cyberwar-style online combat; plenty of new spy and advanced surveillance gear; and sexy shadow wars, just the thing for “environments where adversaries try to deny us access.” Elite special operations forces — the secret military, cocooned inside the regular military, that took down Osama bin Laden — would be further expanded; and finally, there would be a “pivot to Asia” to confront the planet’s rising superpower, China, by sea and air, leaving all those nasty Arabs and Pashtuns and their messy, ugly guerrilla insurgencies, IEDs, and suicide bombers behind.

It couldn’t have sounded cheerier once the media speculation began and it offered something for just about anyone who mattered in imperial Washington. In fact, as sober as Obama looked and as business-like as his surroundings were, if you closed your eyes, you could almost imagine a flight suit and an aircraft carrier deck, for this felt eerily like his “mission accomplished” moment.

Hostilities of the old nasty sort were practically at an end and a new era of high-tech, super-secret, elite warfare was upon us. The future would be so death-of-bin-Laden-ish all the way. It would be safe, secure, and glorious in the hands of our reconfigured military and its efficiently reconfigured budget.

Military-First Imperial Realism

This particular reconfiguration also allowed the globe’s last great imperial power to put a smiley face on a decade of military disasters in the Greater Middle East and — for all the clever politics of the moment — to cry uncle in its own fashion. More miraculous yet, it was doing so without giving up its global military dreams.

It was a way of saying that, if the U.S. ever gets itself out of Afghanistan, when it comes to invading and occupying another Muslim land, building hundreds of bases and an embassy the size of the Ritz, and running riot in the name of “nation-building” and democracy: never again — or not for a few decades anyway.

Consider this a form of begrudging imperial realism that managed never to leave behind that essential American stance of garrisoning the planet. In fact, in order to fly all those drones and land all those special operations units, Washington may need more, not less bases globally. And of course, those 11 carrier battle groups are themselves floating bases, massively armed American small towns at sea.

As it happens, though, we already know how this story ends and it’s nothing to write home about. Yes, they’re going with what’s hot, especially those drones. But keep in mind that, only a few years ago, the hottest thing in town was counterinsurgency warfare and its main proponent, General David Petraeus, was being hailed as a new Alexander the Great, Napoleon, or U.S. Grant. And you know what happened there.

Now, counterinsurgency is history. The new hot ticket of the moment, that “revolutionary weapon” of our time — the drone or robotic airplane — is to fit the bill instead. Drones are, without a doubt, technologically remarkable and growing more sophisticated by the year. But air power has historically proved a poor choice if you want to accomplish anything political on the ground. It hardly matters whether those planes in the distant heavens have pilots or not, or whether they can see ants crawl from 20,000 feet and blast them away with precision.

Despite hosannas about the air war in Libya, count on one thing: air power will prove predictably inept when it comes to an American version of “revolutionary” counterterror warfare in the twenty-first century. So much for the limits of realism.

Washington-style realism assumes that we made a few mistakes, which can be rectified with the help of advanced technology and without endangering the military-industrial-crony-capitalist way of life. That’s about as radical as Obama’s Washington is likely to get.

When compared to the Republicans (Ron Paul aside again) storming the rhetorical barricades daily, threatening war with Iran nightly, promising to reinvade Iraq, or swearing that a military budget larger than those of the next 10 countries combined is wussiness itself, the Obama administration’s approach does look like shining realism. Up against this planet as it actually is today, its military-first policies look like wishful thinking.

What Drones Can’t Do

Climate-change advocates sometimes say that we’re on a new planet. (Bill McKibben calls it “Eaarth,” with that ungainly extra “a” to signify an ungainly place that used to be comfy enough for humanity.) It is, they say, a planet under pressure and destabilizing in all sorts of barely imagined ways.

Here’s the strange thing, though. Set aside climate change, and to the passing, modestly apocalyptic eye, this planet still looks as if it were destabilizing. Your three economic powerhouses — the European Union, China, and the United States — are all teetering at the edge of interrelated financial crises. The EU seems to be literally destabilizing. It’s now perfectly reasonable to suggest that the present Eurozone may, within years, be Eurozones (or worse). Who knows when European banks, up to their elbows in bad debt, will start to tumble or whole countries like Greece go down (whatever that may mean)?

At the same time, the Chinese, with the hottest economy on the planet, have a housing bubble, which may already be bursting. (Americans should have at least a few passing memories of just what kinds of troubles a popped housing bubble can bring.) And for all we know, the U.S. economy, despite recent headlines about growing consumer confidence and an unemployment rate dropping to 8.5%, may be on life support.

As for the rest of the world, it looks questionable as well. The powerhouse Indian economy, like the Brazilian one, is slowing down. Whatever the glories of the Arab Spring, the Middle East is now in tumult and shows no signs of righting itself economically or politically any time soon. And don’t forget the Obama administration’s attempt to ratchet up sanctions on Iranian oil. If things go wrong, that might end up sending energy prices right through the roof and blowing back on the global economy in painful ways. With the major economies of the globe balancing on a pin, the possibility of a spike in those prices thanks to any future U.S./Iran/Israeli crisis should be terrifying.

The globalization types of the 1990s used to sing hymns to the way this planet was morphing into a single economic creature. It’s worth keeping in mind that it remains so in bad times. This year could, of course, be another bumble-through year of protest and tumult, or it could be something much worse. And don’t think that I — a non-economist of the first order — am alone in such fears. The new head of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, has been traveling the planet recently making Jeremiah sound like an optimist, suggesting that we could, in fact, be at the edge of another global Great Depression.

But know this: you can buy drones till they’re coming out your ears and they won’t help keep Greece afloat for an extra second. Expand special operations forces to your heart’s content and you still can’t send them into those failing European banks. Take over cyberspace or outer space and you won’t prevent a Chinese housing bubble from bursting. None of the crucial problems on this planet are, in fact, amenable to military solutions, not even by a country willing to pour its treasure into previously unheard of military and national security expenditures.

Over the years, “the perfect storm” came to be a perfectly overused cliché, which is why you don’t see it much any more. But it might be worth dusting off and keeping in reserve this year and next — just in case. After all, when any situation destabilizes, all bets are off, including for a president having his mission accomplished moment. (Just ask John McCain what happened to his 2008 presidential bid when the economy suddenly began to melt down.)

In such a situation, the sort of military-first policy the president has made his own couldn’t be more useless. Maybe it’s time to take out a little insurance. Just not with AIG.

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s as well as The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book, The United States of Fear (Haymarket Books), has just been published.

[Note: A deep bow to Nick Turse, as ever, for all his help. And another to the indispensable Antiwar.com, Juan Cole’s invaluable Informed Comment website, and Paul Woodward’s always intriguing website The War in Context for being there and up to the second when I need them most.]

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook.

Copyright 2012 Tom Engelhardt

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Posted by The Agonist on January 12th, 2012

From our partners at The Agonist

Chris McGreal | Washington | Jan 11

The Guardian – US forces in Afghanistan are facing fresh accusations of war crimes after film emerged of American marines urinating on dead bodies and laughing.

The US military command in Kabul, which was severely embarrassed last year by revelations that Americans soldiers were running a “kill squad” murdering Afghan civilians, said it will investigate the undated video but that if proves to be authentic then desecration of corpses would be regarded as a serious crime.

In the graphic short video, four soldiers in combat gear and carrying weapons are seen acting in unison as they urinate on three bloodied corpses. One of the soldiers sighs with relief, another says “yeah” and a third laughs. One remarks: “Have a great day, buddy”. Another says: “Golden, like a shower”.

A fifth soldier films the incident.

The video was posted anonymously on Wednesday along with a caption that said: “scout sniper team 4 with 3rd battalion 2nd marines out of camp lejeune peeing on dead talibans”.

Military officials confirmed that the soldiers appear to be carrying rifles of a kind issued to sniper teams in Afghanistan.

A US department of defence spokesman, Captain John Kirby, told CNN: “Regardless of the circumstances or who is in the video, this is egregious, disgusting behaviour. It’s hideous. It turned my stomach.”

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Posted by The Agonist on January 11th, 2012

From our partners at The Agonist

In 2010 the Defense Department spend $20 billion on air conditioning in Iraq and Afghanistan. That’s the same amount as NASA’s entire budget.

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Posted by The Agonist on January 10th, 2012

From our partners at The Agonist

Graham Bowley & Sharifullah Sahak | Kabul | Jan 9

NYT – An Afghan soldier turned his gun on American military personnel while they were playing volleyball at a camp in southern Afghanistan, killing one and wounding three others before being fatally shot, the Afghan police said on Monday.

It was the third time in just over two weeks that a man wearing an Afghan Army uniform attacked NATO personnel. In the earlier cases, the Taliban claimed responsibility, although there was no immediate claim in this case that the Afghan soldier had Taliban sympathies.

The attack took place on Sunday afternoon in Qalat, the capital of Zabul Province. The Afghan soldier approached the volleyball game and appeared to watch the soldiers play before opening fire with an M-16 assault rifle, said Ghulam Jilani Farahi, deputy police chief of Zabul Province. Another American soldier who heard the firing shot and killed the attacker, he said.

The coalition released a brief statement Sunday saying that a service member “was killed today in southern Afghanistan apparently by a member of the Afghan National Army.”

Afghan soldiers have repeatedly shot NATO counterparts in recent years, and there is concern among NATO and Afghan commanders that insurgents may be infiltrating the ranks of the Afghan security forces.

Mohammad Ashraf Nasiri, the governor of Zabul Province, had a slightly different account of Sunday’s shooting. He said only one American soldier was wounded, in addition to the one American who was killed.

Deputy Chief Farahi said the police were investigating what had caused the Afghan soldier, whom he identified as Shafiullah, to open fire at the camp.

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Posted by The Agonist on January 8th, 2012

From our partners at The Agonist

Julian Borger | Jan 8

The GuardianBritain wonders if local police force can keep stability, while Germans argue the units are not easy to control

A split between the US and its European allies has emerged over the role of rural Afghan paramilitary units, seen by American commanders as critical to the military exit strategy.

A year after the Afghan local police (ALP) was launched, the US military has announced a plan to triple its numbers from a current strength of 9,800 to 30,000 by the end of 2013, with further expansion beyond that. According to the US strategy, the lightly-armed groups of men hired to protect their villages are expected to help contain a Taliban resurgence as the US and its Nato allies withdraw combat troops over the next three years.

General John Allen, the American commander of the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) sees the ALP as the key to success in Helmand, from where some 14,000 US marines are departing in the next few months, leaving a 9,000-strong British garrison and some Georgian and Danish troops to manage until Afghan regular soldiers and police can be deployed.

British officials, however, have voiced anxiety over the strategy, particularly over the capabilities of the ALP, described by Allen’s predecessor, General David Petraeus, as “a community watch with AK-47s”. In northern Afghanistan, German officers have warned their American counterparts the local forces could run out of control once their US mentors and paymasters leave.

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Posted by alexthurston on January 3rd, 2012

This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.

It was to be the war that would establish empire as an American fact. It would result in a thousand-year Pax Americana. It was to be “mission accomplished” all the way. And then, of course, it wasn’t. And then, almost nine dismal years later, it was over (sorta).

It was the Iraq War, and we were the uninvited guests who didn’t want to go home. To the last second, despite President Obama’s repeated promise that all American troops were leaving, despite an agreement the Iraqi government had signed with George W. Bush’s administration in 2008, America’s military commanders continued to lobby and Washington continued to negotiate for 10,000 to 20,000 U.S. troops to remain in-country as advisors and trainers.

Only when the Iraqis simply refused to guarantee those troops immunity from local law did the last Americans begin to cross the border into Kuwait. It was only then that our top officials began to hail the thing they had never wanted, the end of the American military presence in Iraq, as marking an era of “accomplishment.” They also began praising their own “decision” to leave as a triumph, and proclaimed that the troops were departing with — as the president put it — “their heads held high.”

In a final flag-lowering ceremony in Baghdad, clearly meant for U.S. domestic consumption and well attended by the American press corps but not by Iraqi officials or the local media, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta spoke glowingly of having achieved “ultimate success.” He assured the departing troops that they had been a “driving force for remarkable progress” and that they could proudly leave the country “secure in knowing that your sacrifice has helped the Iraqi people begin a new chapter in history, free from tyranny and full of hope for prosperity and peace.” Later on his trip to the Middle East, speaking of the human cost of the war, he added, “I think the price has been worth it.”

And then the last of those troops really did “come home” — if you define “home” broadly enough to include not just bases in the U.S. but also garrisons in Kuwait, elsewhere in the Persian Gulf, and sooner or later in Afghanistan.

On December 14th at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, the president and his wife gave returning war veterans from the 82nd Airborne Division and other units a rousing welcome. With some in picturesque maroon berets, they picturesquely hooahed the man who had once called their war “dumb.” Undoubtedly looking toward his 2012 campaign, President Obama, too, now spoke stirringly of “success” in Iraq, of “gains,” of his pride in the troops, of the country’s “gratitude” to them, of the spectacular accomplishments achieved as well as the hard times endured by “the finest fighting force in the history of the world,” and of the sacrifices made by our “wounded warriors” and “fallen heroes.”

He praised “an extraordinary achievement nine years in the making,” framing their departure this way: “Indeed, everything that American troops have done in Iraq — all the fighting and all the dying, the bleeding and the building, and the training and the partnering — all of it has led to this moment of success… [W]e’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people.”

And these themes — including the “gains” and the “successes,” as well as the pride and gratitude, which Americans were assumed to feel for the troops — were picked up by the media and various pundits. At the same time, other news reports were highlighting the possibility that Iraq was descending into a new sectarian hell, fueled by an American-built but largely Shiite military, in a land in which oil revenues barely exceeded the levels of the Saddam Hussein era, in a capital city which still had only a few hours of electricity a day, and that was promptly hit by a string of bombings and suicide attacks from an al-Qaeda affiliated group (nonexistent before the invasion of 2003), even as the influence of Iran grew and Washington quietly fretted.

A Consumer Society at War

It’s true that, if you were looking for low-rent victories in a near trillion-dollar war, this time, as various reporters and pundits pointed out, U.S. diplomats weren’t rushing for the last helicopter off an embassy roof amid chaos and burning barrels of dollars. In other words, it wasn’t Vietnam and, as everyone knew, that was a defeat. In fact, as other articles pointed out, our — as no fitting word has been found for it, let’s go with — withdrawal was a magnificent feat of reverse engineering, worthy of a force that was a nonpareil on the planet.

Even the president mentioned it. After all, having seemingly moved much of the U.S. to Iraq, leaving was no small thing. When the U.S. military began stripping the 505 bases it had built there at the cost of unknown multibillions of taxpayer dollars, it sloughed off $580 million worth of no-longer-wanted equipment on the Iraqis. And yet it still managed to ship to Kuwait, other Persian Gulf garrisons, Afghanistan, and even small towns in the U.S. more than two million items ranging from Kevlar armored vests to port-a-potties. We’re talking about the equivalent of 20,000 truckloads of materiel.

Not surprisingly, given the society it comes from, the U.S. military fights a consumer-intensive style of war and so, in purely commercial terms, the leaving of Iraq was a withdrawal for the ages. Nor should we overlook the trophies the military took home with it, including a vast Pentagon database of thumbprints and retinal scans from approximately 10% of the Iraqi population. (A similar program is still underway in Afghanistan.)

When it came to “success,” Washington had a good deal more than that going for it. After all, it plans to maintain a Baghdad embassy so gigantic it puts the Saigon embassy of 1973 to shame. With a contingent of 16,000 to 18,000 people, including a force of perhaps 5,000 armed mercenaries (provided by private security contractors like Triple Canopy with its $1.5 billion State Department contract), the “mission” leaves any normal definition of “embassy” or “diplomacy” in the dust.

In 2012 alone, it is slated to spend $3.8 billion, a billion of that on a much criticized police-training program, only 12% of whose funds actually go to the Iraqi police. To be left behind in the “postwar era,” in other words, will be something new under the sun.

Still, set aside the euphemisms and the soaring rhetoric, and if you want a simple gauge of the depths of America’s debacle in the oil heartlands of the planet, consider just how the final unit of American troops left Iraq. According to Tim Arango and Michael Schmidt of the New York Times, they pulled out at 2:30 a.m. in the dead of night. No helicopters off rooftops, but 110 vehicles setting out in the dark from Contingency Operating Base Adder. The day before they left, according to the Times reporters, the unit’s interpreters were ordered to call local Iraqi officials and sheiks with whom the Americans had close relations and make future plans, as if everything would continue in the usual way in the week to come.

In other words, the Iraqis were meant to wake up the morning after to find their foreign comrades gone, without so much as a goodbye. This is how much the last American unit trusted its closest local allies. After shock and awe, the taking of Baghdad, the mission-accomplished moment, and the capture, trial, and execution of Saddam Hussein, after Abu Ghraib and the bloodletting of the civil war, after the surge and the Sunni Awakening movement, after the purple fingers and the reconstruction funds gone awry, after all the killing and the dying, the U.S. military slipped into the night without a word.

If, however, you did happen to be looking for a word or two to capture the whole affair, something less polite than those presently circulating, “debacle” and “defeat” might fit the bill. The military of the self-proclaimed single greatest power of planet Earth, whose leaders once considered the occupation of the Middle East the key to future global policy and planned for a multi-generational garrisoning of Iraq, had been sent packing. That should have been considered little short of stunning.

Face what happened in Iraq directly and you know that you’re on a new planet.

Doubling Down on Debacle

Of course, Iraq was just one of our invasions-turned-counterinsurgencies-turned-disasters. The other, which started first and is still ongoing, may prove the greater debacle. Though less costly so far in both American lives and national treasure, it threatens to become the more decisive of the two defeats, even though the forces opposing the U.S. military in Afghanistan remain an ill-armed, relatively weak set of minority insurgencies.

As great as was the feat of building the infrastructure for a military occupation and war in Iraq, and then equipping and supplying a massive military force there year after year, it was nothing compared to what the U.S had to do in Afghanistan. Someday, the decision to invade that country, occupy it, build more than 400 bases there, surge in an extra 60,000 or more troops, masses of contractors, CIA agents, diplomats, and other civilian officials, and then push a weak local government to grant Washington the right to remain more or less in perpetuity will be seen as the delusional actions of a Washington incapable of gauging the limits of its power in the world.

Talk about learning curves: having watched their country fail disastrously in a major war on the Asian mainland three decades earlier, America’s leaders somehow convinced themselves that nothing was beyond the military prowess of the “sole superpower.” So they sent more than 250,000 American troops (along with all those Burger Kings, Subways, and Cinnabons) into two land wars in Eurasia. The result has been another chapter in a history of American defeat — this time of a power that, despite its pretensions, was not only weaker than in the Vietnam era, but also far weaker than its leaders were capable of imagining.

You would think that, after a decade of watching this double debacle unfold, there might be a full-scale rush for the exits. And yet the drawdown of U.S. “combat” troops in Afghanistan is not scheduled to be completed until December 31, 2014 (with thousands of advisors, trainers, and special operations forces slated to remain behind); the Obama administration is still negotiating feverishly with the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai on an agreement that — whatever the euphemisms chosen — would leave Americans garrisoned there for years to come; and, as in Iraq in 2010 and 2011, American commanders are openly lobbying for an even slower withdrawal schedule.

Again as in Iraq, in the face of the obvious, the official word couldn’t be peachier. In mid-December, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta actually told frontline American troops there that they were “winning” the war. Our commanders there similarly continue to tout “progress” and “gains,” as well as a weakening of the Taliban grip on the Pashtun heartland of southern Afghanistan, thanks to the flooding of the region with U.S. surge troops and continual, devastating night raids by U.S. special operations forces.

Nonetheless, the real story in Afghanistan remains grim for a squirming former superpower — as it has been ever since its occupation resuscitated the Taliban, the least popular popular movement imaginable. Typically, the U.N. has recently calculated that “security-related events” in the first 11 months of 2011 rose 21% over the same period in 2010 (something denied by NATO). Similarly, yet more resources are being poured into an endless effort to build and train Afghan security forces. Almost $12 billion went into the project in 2011 and a similar sum is slated for 2012, and yet those forces still can’t operate on their own, nor do they fight particularly effectively (though their Taliban opposites have few such problems).

Afghan police and soldiers continue to desert in droves and the U.S. general in charge of the training operation suggested last year that, to have the slightest chance of success, it would need to be extended through at least 2016 or 2017. (Forget for a moment that an impoverished Afghan government will be utterly incapable of supporting or financing the forces being created for it.)

The Pashtun-based Taliban, like any classic guerrilla force, has faded away before the overwhelming military of a major power, yet it still clearly has significant control over the southern countryside, and in the last year its acts of violence have spread ever more deeply into the non-Pashtun north. And if U.S. forces in Iraq didn’t trust their local partners at the moment of departure, Americans in Afghanistan have every reason to be far more nervous. Afghans in police or army uniforms — some trained by the Americans or NATO, some possibly Taliban guerrillas dressed in outfits bought on the black market — have regularly turned their guns on their putative allies in what’s referred to as “green-on-blue violence.” As 2012 ended, for instance, an Afghan army soldier shot and killed two French soldiers. Not long before, several NATO troops were wounded when a man in an Afghan army uniform opened fire on them.

In the meantime, U.S. troop strength is starting to drop; NATO allies look unsteady indeed; and the Taliban, whatever its trials and tribulations, undoubtedly senses that time is on its side.

Depending on the Kindness of Strangers

Weak as the several outfits that make up the Taliban may be, there can be no question that they are preparing to successfully outlast the greatest military power of our time. And mind you, none of this does more than touch on the debacle that the Afghan War could become. If you want to judge the full folly of the American war (and gauge the waning of U.S. power globally), don’t even bother to look at Afghanistan. Instead, check out the supply lines leading to it.

After all, Afghanistan is a landlocked country in Central Asia. The U.S. is thousands of miles away. No giant ports-cum-bases as at Cam Ranh Bay in South Vietnam in the 1960s are available to bring in supplies. For Washington, if the guerrillas it opposes go to war with little more than the clothes on their backs, its military is another matter. From meals to body armor, building supplies to ammunition, it needs a massive — and massively expensive — supply system. It also guzzles fuel the way a drunk downs liquor and has spent more than $20 billion in Afghanistan and Iraq annually just on air conditioning.

To keep itself in good shape, it must rely on tortuous supply lines thousands of miles long. Because of this, it is not the arbiter of its own fate in Afghanistan, though this seems to have gone almost unnoticed for years.

Of all the impractical wars a declining empire could fight, the Afghan one may be the most impractical of all. Hand it to the Soviet Union, at least its “bleeding wound” — the phrase Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev gave to its Afghan debacle of the 1980s — was conveniently next door. For the nearly 91,000 American troops now in that country, their 40,000 NATO counterparts, and thousands of private contractors, the supplies that make the war possible can only enter Afghanistan three ways: perhaps 20% come in by air at staggering expense; more than a third arrive by the shortest and cheapest route — through the Pakistani port of Karachi, by truck or train north, and then by truck across narrow mountain defiles; and perhaps 40% (only “non-lethal” supplies allowed) via the Northern Distribution Network (NDN).

The NDN was fully developed only beginning in 2009, when it belatedly became clear to Washington that Pakistan had a potential stranglehold on the American war effort. Involving at least 16 countries and just about every form of transport imaginable, the NDN is actually three routes, two of them via Russia, that funnel just about everything through the bottleneck of corrupt, autocratic Uzbekistan.

In other words, simply to fight its war, Washington has made itself dependent on the kindness of strangers — in this case, Pakistan and Russia. It’s one thing when a superpower or great power on the rise casts its lot with countries that may not be natural allies; it’s quite a different story when a declining power does so. Russian leaders are already making noises about the viability of the northern route if the U.S. continues to displease it on the placement of its prospective European missile defense system.

But the more immediate psychodrama of the Afghan War is in Pakistan. There, the massive resupply operation is already a major scandal. It was estimated, for instance, that, in 2008, 12% of all U.S. supplies heading from Karachi to Bagram Air Base went missing somewhere en route. In what Karachi’s police chief has called “the mother of all scams,” 29,000 cargo loads of U.S. supplies have disappeared after being unloaded at that port.

In fact, the whole supply system — together with the local security and protection agreements and bribes to various groups that are part and parcel of it along the way — has evidently helped fund and supply the Taliban, as well as stocking every bazaar en route and supporting local warlords and crooks of every sort.

Recently, in response to American air strikes that killed 24 of their border troops, the Pakistani leadership forced the Americans to leave Shamsi air base, where the CIA ran some of its drone operations, successfully pressured Washington into at least temporarily halting its drone air campaign in Pakistan’s borderlands, and closed the border crossings through which the whole American supply system must pass. They remain closed almost two months later. Without those routes, in the long run, the American war simply cannot be fought.

Though those crossings are likely to be reopened after a significant renegotiation of U.S.-Pakistani relations, the message couldn’t be clearer. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as in those Pakistani borderlands, have not only drained American treasure, but exposed the relative helplessness of the “sole superpower.” Ten (or even five) years ago, the Pakistanis would simply never have dared to take actions like these.

As it turned out, the power of the U.S. military was threateningly impressive, but only until George W. Bush pulled the trigger twice. In doing so, he revealed to the world that the U.S. could not win distant land wars against minimalist enemies or impose its will on two weak countries in the Greater Middle East. Another reality was exposed as well, even if it has taken time to sink in: we no longer live on a planet where it’s obvious how to leverage staggering advantages in military technology into any other kind of power.

In the process, all the world could see what the United States was: the other declining power of the Cold War era. Washington’s state of dependence on the Eurasian mainland is now clear enough, which means that, whatever “agreements” are reached with the Afghan government, the future in that country is not American.

Over the last decade, the U.S. has been taught a repetitive lesson when it comes to ground wars on the Eurasian mainland: don’t launch them. The debacle of the impending double defeat this time around couldn’t be more obvious. The only question that remains is just how humiliating the coming retreat from Afghanistan will turn out to be. The longer the U.S. stays, the more devastating the blow to its power.

All of this should hardly need to be said and yet, as 2012 begins, with the next political season already upon us, it is no less painfully clear that Washington will be incapable of ending the Afghan War any time soon.

At the height of what looked like success in Iraq and Afghanistan, American officials fretted endlessly about how, in the condescending phrase of the moment, to put an “Afghan face” or “Iraqi face” on America’s wars. Now, at a nadir moment in the Greater Middle East, perhaps it’s finally time to put an American face on America’s wars, to see them clearly for the imperial debacles they have been — and act accordingly.

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s as well as The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book, The United States of Fear (Haymarket Books), has just been published.

Copyright 2012 Tom Engelhardt

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Posted by The Agonist on January 2nd, 2012

From our partners at The Agonist

Kabul | Jan 2

AFP – Beards, eyeliner and jihadi ringtones – these are the latest defensive weapons in the war in Afghanistan, as travellers take novel steps to keep themselves safe from the Taliban.

Setting off on Afghanistan’s roads can be a dangerous business, with the threat of roadside bombs and the presence of armed insurgents who often stop cars and buses.

Those carrying dollar bills, documents written in English, or phones with the numbers of foreigners, can expect to be dragged out, interrogated, and even beaten or killed.

So cautious travellers have taken to moving in Taliban-friendly disguise.

One 30-year-old, who gave his name as Abdulwali, sits nervously on a bus in Kabul waiting to set off on a six-hour journey for Kandahar, the country’s southern heartland and the birthplace of the Taliban.

He has a turban on his lap, black kohl around his eyes, and a few days’ growth of beard. And when his phone rings it unleashes the sound of gunfire before a male vocalist launches into song.

“We will continue our jihad against the enemy! If we die during jihad we will enter paradise!” it sounds.

Abdulwali says he is “not really a Taliban-supporting kind of guy” but is travelling in disguise because he has to go to Kandahar for work.

“People say the Taliban are psychologists, that they read your face, and learn whether you are a supporter or not. That’s why I’ve uploaded Taliban songs on my mobile, and now I’m ready to play them if the Taliban stop our bus,” he says.

“I also started growing a beard days ago and put kohl on my eyes. The more you look and sound like them, the more safe you are. Hopefully nothing will happen to me.”

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