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.
Perhaps the most blatant example of the bankruptcy of conventional wisdom at the Pentagon came from retired General David Petraeus in an interview with PBS reporter Judy Woodruff in June of 2017. Petraeus spoke of a “sustainable, sustained commitment” to Afghanistan and the need for a “generational struggle” with Islamic terrorists who are located there. Comparing Afghanistan to the U.S. commitment to South Korea, he hinted U.S. troops might be there for 60 or more years (though he backtracked on the 60-year figure when challenged by Woodruff).
Here’s a telling excerpt from his interview:
We need to recognize that we went there [Afghanistan] for a reason and we stayed for a reason, to ensure that Afghanistan is not once again a sanctuary for al-Qaida or other transnational extremists, the way it was when the 9/11 attacks were planned there.
That’s why we need to stay. We also have a very useful platform there for the regional counterterrorist effort. And, of course, we have greatly reduced the capabilities of al-Qaida’s senior leaders in that region, including, of course, taking out Osama bin Laden.
But this is a generational struggle. This is not something that is going to be won in a few years. We’re not going to take a hill, plant a flag, go home to a victory parade. And we need to be there for the long haul, but in a way that is, again, sustainable.
These statements are so wrongheaded it’s hard to know where to begin to correct them:
The U.S. military went into Afghanistan to punish the Taliban after 9/11. Punishment was administered and the Taliban overthrown in 2001, after which the U.S. military should have left. The decision to stay was foolish and disastrous. Extending a disastrous occupation is only aggravating the folly.
“Transnational extremists”: According to the U.S. military, the Af-Pak region has exploded with terrorist elements, and indeed Petraeus and his fellow generals count twenty or more factions in Afghanistan. In sum, rather than weakening Islamic extremism in the area, U.S. military action has served to strengthen it.
“A very useful platform”: The U.S. has spent roughly a trillion dollars on its eighteen-year-old war in the Af-Pak region. The results? The Taliban has increased its hold over Afghan territory and Islamic extremism has flourished. How is this “very useful” to the United States?
A “long haul” that’s “sustainable”: What exactly is “sustainable” about a war you’ve been fighting — and losing — for nearly two decades? Leaving aside the dead and maimed troops, how is a trillion dollars a “sustainable” price for a lost war?
No “victory parade.” At least Petraeus is right here, though I wouldn’t put it past Trump to have a military parade to celebrate some sort of “victory” somewhere.
It appears President Trump is finally fed up, suggesting a withdrawal of troops from Syria as well as a force drawdown in Afghanistan. But it appears Trump is already caving to pressure from the Pentagon and the usual neo-con suspects, e.g. National Security Adviser John Bolton suggests U.S. troops won’t withdraw from Syria without a guarantee from Turkey not to attack America’s Kurdish allies, which, according to the New York Times, may extend America’s troop commitment by “months or years.”
Trump needs to realize that, if it were up to the Pentagon, America today would still be fighting the Vietnam War, rather than working closely with Vietnam as a partner in efforts to counterbalance China.
The Pentagon’s conventional wisdom is that U.S. troops, once committed, must never leave a region. Victory or defeat doesn’t matter. What matters is “sustaining” a “sustainable” commitment. Hence troops are still in Iraq, still in Afghanistan, still in Syria, still in 800+ bases around the world, because any withdrawal is couched as surrender, a display of weakness, so says America’s military “experts.”
The U.S. doesn’t need a “sustainable, sustained commitment” to the Middle East or Central Asia or anywhere else for that matter, other than right here in the USA. We need a sustainable, sustained commitment to a better health care system. To better roads, bridges, airports. To affordable education. To tax cuts that actually help the middle class.
When it comes to “generational struggles,” David Petraeus, let’s fight for a better America, not for sustaining troops in lost causes around the world.