As a young captain in the Air Force, I visited Los Alamos National Lab in 1992. The mood there was grim. What use for a lab that develops and tests nuclear weapons when the Cold War with the Soviet Union was over and America was downsizing its nuclear forces? The people I talked to said the lab would have to reinvent itself; its nuclear physicists and engineers would have to adapt. Perhaps they might move to more commercial applications of technology. Better that than closing down the lab, they said.
Who knew that, 25+ years later, nuclear weapons would make their own “surge” and that the U.S. would plan to “invest” more than a trillion dollars in nuclear modernization, beginning with smaller, more “usable,” low-yield nuclear warheads for the Navy’s Trident missiles, as James Carroll wrote about yesterday at TomDispatch.com. Even “small” warheads have genocidal implications, however, for once you start launching nuclear-tipped missiles, no matter how “small,” escalation is likely to follow.
That sunny day in New Mexico in 1992, I could not have imagined a new American surge in nuclear weapons, beginning with the Obama administration and now championed by men like Donald Trump, Mike Pompeo, and John Bolton. That day, it seemed the end of the era of MAD — mutually assured destruction — the end to fears of nuclear war. Soon even conservatives like Henry Kissinger and George Schultz were calling for the elimination of nuclear weapons.
But that was 2007-08, and this is now. The madness is back, America. I urge you to read and heed James Carroll’s warning at TomDispatch.com. If we want to save ourselves as well as our planet’s biosphere, we need to eliminate nuclear weapons, not build more of them.
Three news items caught my eye, courtesy of FP: Foreign Policy. The first involves the U.S. Navy, which has “inked a $14.9 billion contract for two Ford-class aircraft carriers, according to Defense News. The service claims the purchase of two carriers at once will save $4 billion.”
All credit to the Navy: As the Trump administration throws money at the Pentagon, to the tune of $750 billion next year, the Navy is moving at flank speed to order two new aircraft carriers of the Ford class. The problem is that first Ford-class carrier, which has been a $13 billion disaster: three years behind schedule, billions over budget, with catapults that don’t work, among other serious problems. But no matter. Let’s build another two of these mammoth ships while “saving” $4 billion in the process.
Three Ford-class carriers will cost at least $43 billion (despite the $4 billion “savings”), but you hear few dissenting voices in Congress. Anchors Aweigh, my boys!
The Navy says it needs at least twelve large carriers to perform its mission, but no rival navy has more than one. Carriers are all about imperial power projection across the globe; does the USA really need more of this for national “defense”?
The second news item comes from America’s endless Afghan war, in which the USA continues to throw billions of dollars at Afghan government security forces despite the always-disappointing results, as documented by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR):
“The size of Afghanistan’s armed forces is shrinking even as its military faces a sustained challenge from Taliban insurgents. The [SIGAR] report finds that ‘the [Afghan] army and police are at a combined total of just over 308,000, down from 312,000 a year earlier and nearly 316,000 in 2016,’ the AP reports. ‘The cost of arming, training, paying and sustaining those forces falls largely to the U.S. government at more than $4 billion a year.’”
To compensate for the poor performance of Afghan government security forces, the U.S. “has stepped up airstrikes and special operations raids in the country to the highest levels since 2014 in what Defense Department officials described as a coordinated series of attacks on Taliban leaders and fighters. The surge, which began during the fall, is intended to give American negotiators leverage in ongoing peace talks with the Taliban, The New York Timesreports.”
Just what we need: another American “surge” in Afghanistan. This time, it’s not to win the war; it’s all about gaining “leverage” in ongoing peace talks with the Taliban. This calls to mind all the bombing the Nixon administration did during its peace talks with North Vietnam in the early 1970s, also in the name of “leverage.” Look at how well that worked out.
Finally, the third item mentions America’s ongoing and undeclared drone war in Somalia. Citing a Nation report, FP: Foreign Policy notes that
“Since Donald Trump took office, the U.S. military has approximately tripled the number of strikes that it conducts each year in Somalia, according to figures confirmed by the Pentagon, while such actions—and the reasons behind them—have become increasingly opaque.”
“An investigation by the magazine ‘identified strikes that went unreported until they were raised with AFRICOM, but also others that AFRICOM could not confirm—which suggests that another US agency may also be launching air attacks in the region. The investigation also tracked down evidence that AFRICOM’s claim of zero civilian casualties is almost certainly incorrect. And it found that the United States lacks a clear definition of terrorist, with neither AFRICOM, the Pentagon, nor the National Security Council willing to clarify the policies that underpin these strikes.’”
In other words, a war is being waged with no accountability to the American people. One has to admire the chutzpah of the Pentagon, however, in declaring these drone attacks have only killed “terrorists,” even if that term hasn’t even been defined clearly.
Well, there you have it: Overpriced ships that enable imperialism, overpriced foreign militaries that require more U.S. bombing and special ops raids as a prop “for peace,” and finally a wider, undeclared, war in Africa. Just another manic Monday in Empire America.
When do humans count in drone warfare, and when do they not?
I thought of this question as I read Christopher Fuller’s “See It/Shoot It: The Secret History of the CIA’s Lethal Drone Program.” Revealingly, U.S. pilots and crews who operate these drones, such as Predators and Reapers, reject the terminology of “drones” and UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) or UAS (unmanned aerial system). They prefer the term RPA, or remotely piloted aircraft. They want to be known as the essential humans in the loop, they want to stand out, they want to count for something, and in fact the Department of Defense at various times has suggested a new “drone medal” to recognize their service.
Whereas American pilots want to stand up and be recognized as the pilots of their “remote aircraft,” the Pentagon doesn’t want to think about the targets of these drones as human beings. Civilian casualties are grouped and shrouded under the term “collateral damage,” a nasty euphemism that combines a banking term (collateral) with the concept of damage that hints at reversibility and repair. But collateral damage really means innocents blown up and blasted by missiles. Shouldn’t these humans count?
Another term that Fuller discusses is “neutralization.” The U.S. counterterrorism goal is to “neutralize” opponents, meaning, as Fuller notes, “killing, rendition, and imprisonment.” Again, with a word like neutralization, we’re not encouraged to think of those being attacked as humans. We’re just “neutralizing” a threat, right? A terrorist, not a fellow human being. Right?
Interestingly, the whole idea of terrorism is something they do, not us. Why? Because the U.S. defines terrorism as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.” Note that word: subnational. By this definition, nations do not commit terrorism, which is handy for the U.S., which presents its drone attacks as defensive or proactive or preemptive.
Finally, the Pentagon and the CIA are at pains to assert they take the utmost care in reducing “collateral damage” in their “neutralization” efforts. Yet as Fuller notes in his book (page 214), “the U.S. government did not always know the identity or affiliations of those killed in its drone strikes.”
So who counts, and who doesn’t? Whose humanity is to be celebrated (pilots of RPAs?), and whose humanity (innocent victims) is to be suppressed?
Addendum: On how the U.S. seriously undercounts civilian deaths in its air strikes, see this article.
The ongoing absurdity of America’s Afghan War was captured in two headlines today from my New York Times feed. Here’s the first:
NEWS ANALYSIS Taliban Talks Raise Question of What U.S. Withdrawal From Afghanistan Could Mean By MARK LANDLER, HELENE COOPER and ERIC SCHMITT A hasty American withdrawal, experts said, would erode the authority and legitimacy of the Afghan government, raising the risk that the Taliban could recapture control.
Think about this. What kind of “authority” and “legitimacy” does an Afghan government have if that authority and legitimacy can be fatally undermined by a “quick” withdrawal of U.S. troops over 18 months? The Taliban, meanwhile, does not pose a serious threat to the United States, and anyway who are we to say which group should rule in Afghanistan?
Here is the second headline:
To Slow U.S. Exit, Afghan Leader Offers Trump a Cost Reduction By MUJIB MASHAL A letter from President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan to President Trump is among the strongest signs yet that Mr. Ghani is worried about an American withdrawal.
So, all of a sudden, faced with the prospect the U.S. military may finally end its quagmire war and the $40 billion or so it spends in Afghanistan each year, Afghan governmental leaders are finally suggesting ways to reduce the cost of the U.S. occupation. Shouldn’t that tell us something about the nature of U.S. efforts there, as well as the motives of America’s putative allies?
No matter how grim the news, no matter how high the price, America’s foreign policy experts favor forever war rather than a negotiated settlement. That’s my grim conclusion from these headlines today.
Speaking of grim news: I just received some data from SIGAR, the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction. These data points suggest no real American progress in Afghanistan. Indeed, the Taliban is stronger, the Afghan government is weaker, corruption is increasing, and so too is the drug trade, even as the U.S. military drops more and more bombs and missiles. And we should keep doing this?
From the SIGAR report (RS is Resolute Support, ostensibly a NATO mission to support the Afghan government, but of course commanded and driven by the U.S.):
— The Afghan government’s control or influence over the population declined this quarter. According to RS, as of October 31, 2018, 63.5% of the population lived in areas under Afghan government control or influence, down 1.7% from the previous quarter. The insurgency slightly increased its control or influence over areas where 10.8% of the population lives. The population living in contested areas increased to 25.6% of the population.
— According to Resolute Support, as of October 31, 2018, the Afghan government controlled or influenced 53.8% of the total number of districts. This represents a decrease of seven government-controlled or influenced districts compared to last quarter and eight since the same period of 2017. 12.3% of Afghanistan’s districts are now reportedly under insurgent control or influence. 33.9% of districts are contested.
— USFOR-A reported that the assigned (actual) personnel strength of the ANDSF [government defense/security forces] as October 31, 2018, was 308,693 personnel – or 87.7% strength. ANDSF strength decreased by 3,635 personnel since last quarter and is at the lowest it has been since the RS mission began in January 2015.
— According to U.S. Air Forces Central Command (AFCENT), U.S. air assets in Afghanistan dropped 6,823 munitions in the first 11 months of 2018. This year’s figure was already 56% higher than the total number of munitions released in 2017 (4,361), and is more than five times the total in 2016.
— The Department of Justice (DOJ) reports that the Afghan government has made insufficient progress to investigate and prosecute corruption cases. DOJ also reported that the Afghan government has not yet demonstrated sufficient motivation or action to deter future corrupt actors, or to convince the Afghan people that the government is serious about combating corruption.
— Narcotics trafficking remains a widespread problem, with CSTC-A observing senior Afghan security force leaders and civilian provincial authorities often controlling narcotics trafficking networks in the western, southwestern, and northern regions.
Can anyone see a light at the end of the Afghan tunnel?
In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I discuss how and why the U.S. military has a sustained record of turning victory (however fleeting) into defeat. What follows is an excerpt from my article.
A Sustained Record of Losing
During World War II, British civilians called the “Yanks” who would form the backbone of the Normandy invasion in June 1944 (the one that contributed to Nazi Germany’s unconditional surrender less than a year later) “overpaid, oversexed, and over here.” What can be said of today’s Yanks? Perhaps that they’re overfunded, overhyped, and always over there — “there” being unpromising places like Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia.
Let’s start with always over there. As Nick Turse recently reported for TomDispatch, U.S. forces remain deployed on approximately 800 foreign bases across the globe. (No one knows the exact number, Turse notes, possibly not even the Pentagon.) The cost: somewhere to the north of $100 billion a year simply to sustain that global “footprint.” At the same time, U.S. forces are engaged in an open-ended war on terror in 80 countries, a sprawling commitment that has cost nearly $6 trillion since the 9/11 attacks (as documented by the Costs of War Project at Brown University). This prodigious and prodigal global presence has not been lost on America’s Tweeter-in-Chief, who opined that the country’s military “cannot continue to be the policeman of the world.” Showing his usual sensitivity to others, he noted as well that “we are in countries most people haven’t even heard about. Frankly, it’s ridiculous.”
Yet Trump’s inconsistent calls to downsize Washington’s foreign commitments, including vows to withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria and halve the number in Afghanistan, have encountered serious pushback from Washington’s bevy of war hawks like Republican Senator Lindsey Graham and his own national security advisor, John Bolton. Contrary to the president’s tweets, U.S. troops in Syria are now destined to remain there for at least months, if not years, according to Bolton. Meanwhile, Trump-promised troop withdrawals from Afghanistan may be delayed considerably in the (lost) cause of keeping the Taliban — clearly winning and having nothing but time — off-balance. What matters most, as retired General David Petraeus argued in 2017, is showing resolve, no matter how disappointing the results. For him, as for so many in the Pentagon high command, it’s perfectly acceptable for Americans to face a “generational struggle” in Afghanistan (and elsewhere) that could, he hinted, persist for as long as America’s ongoing commitment to South Korea — that is, almost 70 years.
Turning to overfunded, the unofficial motto of the Pentagon budgetary process might be “aim high” and in this they have succeeded admirably. For example, President Trump denounced a proposed Pentagon budget of $733 billion for fiscal year 2020 as “crazy” high. Then he demonstrated his art-of-the-deal skills by suggesting a modest cut to $700 billion, only to compromise with his national security chiefs on a new figure: $750 billion. That eternal flood of money into the Pentagon’s coffers — no matter the political party in power — ensures one thing: that no one in that five-sided building needs to think hard about the disastrous direction of U.S. strategy or the grim results of its wars. The only hard thinking is devoted to how to spend the gigabucks pouring in (and keep more coming).
Instead of getting the most bang for the buck, the Pentagon now gets the most bucks for the least bang. To justify them, America’s defense experts are placing their bets not only on their failing generational war on terror, but also on a revived cold war (now uncapitalized) with China and Russia. Such rivals are no longer simply to be “deterred,” to use a commonplace word from the old (capitalized) Cold War; they must now be “overmatched,” a new Pentagon buzzword that translates into unquestionable military superiority (including newly “usable” nuclear weapons) that may well bring the world closer to annihilation.
Finally, there’s overhyped. Washington leaders of all stripes love to boast of a military that’s “second to none,” of a fighting force that’s the “finest” in history. Recently, Vice President Mike Pence reminded the troops that they are “the best of us.” Indeed you could argue that “support our troops” has become a new American mantra, a national motto as ubiquitous as (and synonymous with) “In God we trust.” But if America’s military truly is the finest fighting force since forever, someone should explain just why it’s failed to produce clear and enduring victories of any significance since World War II.
Despite endless deployments, bottomless funding, and breathless hype, the U.S. military loses — it’s politely called a “stalemate” — with remarkable consistency. America’s privates and lieutenants, the grunts at the bottom, are hardly to blame. The fish, as they say, rots from the head, which in this case means America’s most senior officers. Yet, according to them, often in testimony before Congress, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, or elsewhere, that military is always making progress. Victory, so they claim, is invariably around the next corner, which they’re constantly turning or getting ready to turn.
Indeed, when three of them were still in Donald Trump’s administration, the pro-war mainstream media unabashedly saluted them as the “adults in the room,” allegedly curbing the worst of the president’s mad impulses. Yet consider the withering critique of veteran reporter William Arkin who recently resigned from NBC News to protest the media’s reflexive support of America’s wars and the warriors who have overseen them. “I find it disheartening,” he wrote, “that we do not report the failures of the generals and national security leaders. I find it shocking that we essentially condone continued American bumbling in the Middle East and now Africa through our ho-hum reporting.” NBC News, he concluded in his letter of resignation, has been “emulating the national security state itself — busy and profitable. No wars won but the ball is kept in play.”
Arkin couldn’t be more on target. Moreover, self-styled triumphalist warriors and a cheeringly complicit media are hardly the ideal tools with which to fix a tottering republic, one allegedly founded on the principle of rule by informed citizens, not the national security state.
Last week while getting new tires, I came across the latest Air Force recruiting brochure. Its first line: “The Air Force dominates the sky with speed, precision and air power.”
It’s fascinating to me this emphasis on global domination. During the Cold War, the goal was not to dominate but to deter the Soviet Union, China, and similar rivals. Deterrence suggests rough equality — and some reasonable cap to defense spending. Domination, however, suggests something far different. As Michael Klare has noted, it suggests we must “overmatch” potential rivals; we must be capable of obliterating them, not just deterring and defeating them.
Domination makes perfect sense, of course, if your goal is to maximize “defense” spending. If the U.S. only intended to deter a (much weaker) Russia and (a mainly economic power) China, we could probably do that at half the cost we’re paying now. Imagine saving $350 billion a year and applying it to education, health care, infrastructure, and similar places of need in the USA.
But when the operative word is dominate, your budget is almost open-ended. You can always find (or imagine) a weakness somewhere, a place where we must boost spending. A Space Force, perhaps? Not even the sky is a limit to “dominant” defense spending.
This linguistic turn, from deterrence to dominance, doesn’t get enough attention in our media and culture. Those seeking dominance, no matter what they claim, are much more likely to breed war than to find peace.
Of course, the Air Force recruiting brochure I picked up at the auto shop showed no scenes of war: no bombs being dropped, no missiles being launched, no cities turned to rubble, and of course no casualties. Somehow America’s airmen are supposed to dominate the sky in a bloodless manner, or so our slick recruiting brochures suggest.
Not surprisingly, recruiting brochures don’t show the horrific realities of war. But what they do proudly announce is the U.S. military’s goal of total dominance. Never mind the cost, whether to ourselves or others.
News that President Trump has considered withdrawing from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has drawn great consternation and criticism in the mainstream media. According to the New York Times, “Mr. Trump’s national security team, including Jim Mattis, then the defense secretary, and John R. Bolton, the national security adviser, scrambled to keep American strategy on track without mention of a withdrawal that would drastically reduce Washington’s influence in Europe and could embolden Russia for decades.” On NBC News today, an op-ed suggests that “Trump’s reported desire to leave NATO is a belated Christmas present for Putin.” In both cases, there’s more than a hint that Trump is favoring Russia and Putin while possibly endangering European allies.
Twenty years ago, I was a major at the Air Force Academy, and we hosted a symposium on coalition warfare during which the future of NATO was discussed. This was a few years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. There were quite a few senior officers at that symposium who, like Trump today, were willing to question the continued relevance of NATO. One of the “roundtables” specifically addressed the future of NATO. Its chair was retired General James P. McCarthy, USAF, and its panel consisted of retired Generals Andrew L. Goodpaster, USA; Sir Anthony Farrar-Hockley; and John A. Shaud, USAF.
With another officer, I wrote an “executive summary” of this symposium and what these retired generals said about NATO back in 1998. Here’s what I wrote two decades ago:
The value of America’s most successful and most enduring alliance, NATO, has been called into question since the end of the Cold War, a confrontation many credit it with winning. But, like many successful alliances after the common foe has been vanquished, NATO’s long-time raison d’être has seemingly evaporated. That the alliance has managed not just to survive but thrive has baffled many observers. The four former high-ranking NATO generals who made up this panel shared a common view of the continued high value of the alliance to America’s foreign policy interests. However, their views diverged on several key issues that face NATO in the years ahead.
General McCarthy opened the discussion … [suggesting] that advancing the causes of peace, prosperity, and security remain NATO’s central task, made more difficult today because of the expansion of NATO’s membership. Yet NATO continues to be important on the continent to discourage temptations to revert to old insecurities. General Shaud echoed Goodpaster’s view of NATO’s essential role, saying if NATO did not exist, we would have to invent it.
On the effects of expansion, Shaud stated that NATO needed to expand, both in membership to include Eastern Europe and in mission to include conflict prevention and “out of area” operations. Goodpaster quoted the late Secretary General Manfred Woerner, “It’s either out of area or out of business.” He then raised a provocative question: Should NATO’s mission expand to include not just nations but peoples? General Farrar-Hockley expanded on NATO’s continuing value, noting that during the Cold War, member countries came not to seek advantage for themselves over other members but came to put alliance interests and views first.
The sensitive issue of the effects of NATO’s expansion on Russia brought out disagreement among the panel members. Farrar-Hockley took the position that to forego expansion because of Russian concerns would be to grant Russia a continuing fiefdom in Eastern Europe. Russia has nothing to fear from NATO, and besides, it can do nothing to prevent expansion. If the Soviet Union was an anemic tiger, Russia is more like a circus tiger that may growl but won’t bite. Goodpaster suggested that NATO could have followed a different path that would not have antagonized Russia. In the early post-Cold War years, the Soviet Union may have been open to an “overarching relationship” encompassing peaceful relations. But as NATO developed partnerships with Eastern European countries, it chose not to pursue this approach with Russia. Partnership for Peace itself could have been done differently by providing a more equal forum analogous to the new European-Atlantic Partnership Council. Goodpaster asked rhetorically if NATO is a defensive alliance or a collective security alliance, but answered that NATO is what the times require. It is ultimately a forum for solidarity in Europe, an organization in which different peoples have come to respect and trust one another. Shaud took a middle view, saying NATO should ensure Russia does not become isolated; continuing dialogue is necessary. He noted that earlier panels had pointed out Russia’s historical concerns about encirclement, suggesting that Russia’s views on expansion are not ephemeral concerns but rather enduring issues.
One of the more pressing questions NATO faces today is expansion, the possible inclusion of former Soviet states. Russian leaders believe, perhaps with some justification, that NATO is directed at them. It is not that NATO has aggressive intentions, but that former Soviet satellites seek security in NATO’s orbit, thereby tending further to isolate Russia from the West. The possibilities are ominous—the rise of a new demagogue in Russia in the absence of effective leadership, or alternatively chaos resulting from the implosion of an ungovernable, ineffective state. How should the United States and NATO manage this sensitive relationship? Can Russia be brought back from the brink on which it now stands through inclusion in Western institutions? Or should NATO gather the flock against the impending storm, expanding to Russia’s very doorstep to take in all states desiring inclusion? If NATO continues to expand, what will become of the cohesion that has been the hallmark of the most successful alliance in modern history? If NATO stops expanding, what will become of non-members if crisis erupts in regions formerly controlled by the Soviet Union? Whatever course of action NATO adopts, communication and openness must be its bywords; secrecy and exclusion will reap only suspicion and mistrust.
Again, this was written 20 years ago. But I’d like to make a few points about this discussion:
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO was no longer needed in Europe in the sense of its original purpose.
Senior leaders disagreed on whether NATO expansion would serve the peace in Europe. Like General Goodpaster, some believed expansion would isolate and perhaps antagonize Russia, while others believed this was a risk worth taking in efforts to contain possible Russian aggression or turmoil.
There was consensus that NATO was worth preserving in some form, but at other times during the symposium, concerns were expressed about equity, i.e. burden-sharing, and the perceived unfairness of the U.S. paying much more that its fair share to keep the alliance functioning.
In short, a generation ago military experts questioned whether NATO had outlived its purpose. They asked whether the U.S. was paying too high a price, and they wondered whether NATO expansion would alienate Russia. These were reasonable questions then, and they remain reasonable today.
Trump is not some “Russian agent” or Putin stooge for questioning whether the U.S. still needs to be in NATO. In this case, he’s shown a willingness to think outside the NATO box. After all, how long should NATO last? Don’t all alliances eventually come to an end? Or is NATO to exist forever?
Personally, I don’t think a precipitous withdrawal from NATO would be in the best interests of the U.S. But surely there’s something to be said for building a new agreement or alliance in Europe that would be less driven by military concerns, less dependent on American money and weaponry and troops, and more inclusive toward Russia.