The Ecology of War in Afghanistan

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Too often for Americans, Afghanistan is simply a war. Here’s a pacific slice of life. Donkeys and horses are the main source of transport in the mountains (Photo by Anna M.)

W.J. Astore

There are many ways of looking at war: as a continuation of politics by violent means, as a biological imperative, as the extreme end of a continuum of violence that defines human existence, morally as a sin that is only justified in self-defense, as a business in which profits are the main motive, as criminal activity writ large, as a response to human fears and memories of predation, as a mobilizing force that conveys meaning and a sense of belonging, as a practice that conveys masculinity, the list goes on.  War, in sum, is an ecology of death that is arguably as complex as the ecology of life.

But you wouldn’t know this from American commentators talking about war.  Consider the Afghan war, now in its sixteenth year and with no end in sight.  It’s termed a “generational” war by American generals, a long war, a war that may require a Korean-like commitment by the U.S. military, according to retired General David Petraeus.

A commitment to the “long war” in Afghanistan, seen by Washington as the height of sobriety, is taken apart by Major Danny Sjursen at TomDispatch.com.  MAJ Sjursen, who saw combat in Afghanistan, has this to say about the latest mini-surge being contemplated by Washington:

One look at U.S. military attempts at “nation-building” or post-conflict stabilization and pacification in Iraq, Libya, or — dare I say — Syria should settle the issue. It’s often said that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. Yet here we are, 14 years after the folly of invading Iraq and many of the same voices — inside and outside the administration — are clamoring for one more “surge” in Afghanistan (and, of course, will be clamoring for the predictable surges to follow across the Greater Middle East).

The very idea that the U.S. military had the ability to usher in a secure Afghanistan is grounded in a number of preconditions that proved to be little more than fantasies.  First, there would have to be a capable, reasonably corruption-free local governing partner and military.  That’s a nonstarter.  Afghanistan’s corrupt, unpopular national unity government is little better than the regime of Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam in the 1960s and that American war didn’t turn out so well, did it?  Then there’s the question of longevity.  When it comes to the U.S. military presence there, soon to head into its 16th year, how long is long enough?  …

And what could a new surge actually do?  The U.S. presence in Afghanistan is essentially a fragmented series of self-contained bases, each of which needs to be supplied and secured.  In a country of its size, with a limited transportation infrastructure, even the 4,000-5,000 extra troops the Pentagon is reportedly considering sending right now won’t go very far. 

Now, zoom out again.  Apply the same calculus to the U.S. position across the Greater Middle East and you face what we might start calling the Afghan paradox, or my own quandary safeguarding five villages with only 82 men writ large.  Do the math.  The U.S. military is already struggling to keep up with its commitments.  At what point is Washington simply spinning its proverbial wheels?  I’ll tell you when — yesterday.

Yet U.S. military actions are worse than wheel-spinning.  To explain why, consider an article I wrote in 2014, when I called upon Charles Darwin’s wedge metaphor to explain how U.S. actions were hammering the “face of nature” of Afghan societal ecology, aggravating unrest and creating new enemies.

The U.S. military keeps hitting the terrorist “wedges” in Afghan society, without really thinking about the larger ecology and the ripple effects. In the violent struggle for existence in Afghanistan, the U.S. compounds the violence, serving to strengthen the very enemy we say we’re seeking to weaken. (Indeed, the Taliban is gaining strength, hence the call for more U.S. troops).  At the same time, the U.S. military’s foreign presence is serving to legitimate the indigenous enemy while simultaneously forcing it to learn and adapt.

By surging again and again, i.e. hitting the enemy harder, this is what the U.S. military has succeeded in doing:

1. The enemy has spread along new fault lines created by U.S. military-led hammer blows.
2. The enemy has adapted to force, becoming fitter in its struggle for existence against us.
3. The enemy has gained legitimacy from the struggle.
4. The wider societal ecology has become more radicalized as well as more unstable.
5. A complex and more chaotic ecology has become even less tractable in American hands.

Despite this, the U.S. military still thinks more hammer blows are the answer. The only answer that makes sense — withdrawal from Afghanistan — is the one that is not on that table in Washington where all options allegedly reside.

We’re already living in a new reality of alternative facts, so let’s just declare victory, America, and leave.  With or without the U.S. military, the Afghan people will find their own way.

Turning Temporary Problems Into Permanent Ones: America’s Real Military “Strategy”

Tom Engelhardt.  Introduction by W.J. Astore.

Readers of Bracing Views are familiar with Michael Murry’s frequent contributions to our site.  One of Mike’s more penetrating comments originated from a discussion he had with the late Sri Lankan Ambassador Ananda W. P. Guruge.  As Mike recently recounted, Guruge “certainly had it right when he told me once why his government had refused America’s offer of military aid against the Tamil insurgency in that little island country: If the Americans come, they will just draw an arbitrary line through a temporary problem and make it permanent.”

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Dr. Ananda W. P. Guruge. From closertotruth.com

Not many people have noticed how America’s wars, which used to have clear ending dates, like VE and VJ days in 1945 at the end of World War II, presently never seem to end.  In his introduction to Bill Hartung’s new article at TomDispatch.com, “Destabilizing the Middle East (Yet More),” Tom Engelhardt reminds us of how U.S. military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, and elsewhere simply never end.  Instead, they fester, they surge and shrink, they metastasize, they become, as Dr. Guruge noted, permanent.

That reality of permanent war is arguably the most insidious problem facing American democracy today.  I didn’t say it; James Madison did:

Of all the enemies of true liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other.  War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debt and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few.  In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people.  The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manner and of morals, engendered in both.  No nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare …

Why do so many Americans fail to see this?  Because believing is seeing.  I heard that line on “American Gods” recently, a compelling reversal of “seeing is believing.”  It applies here because America’s leaders believe in war, and Americans in general believe in their military, and believing is seeing.  A belief in the efficacy of war and the trustworthiness of the military drives America’s “kinetic” actions around the world, and that belief, that faith, serves to make wars permanent.

Believing is seeing.  It explains why our wars, despite catastrophic results that are so plainly in sight, persist without end.  W.J. Astore

America’s Endless Wars

Tom Engelhardt

Not that anyone in a position of power seems to notice, but there’s a simple rule for American military involvement in the Greater Middle East: once the U.S. gets in, no matter the country, it never truly gets out again.  Let’s start with Afghanistan. The U.S. first entered the fray there in 1979 via a massive CIA-led proxy war against the Soviets that lasted until the Red Army limped home in 1989. Washington then took more than a decade off until some of the extremists it had once supported launched the 9/11 attacks, after which the U.S. military took on the role abandoned by the Red Army and we all know where that’s ended — or rather not ended almost 16 years later. In the “longest war” in American history, the Pentagon, recently given a free hand by President Trump, is reportedly planning a new mini-surge of nearly 4,000 U.S. military personnel into that country to “break the stalemate” there.  Ever more air strikes and money will be part of the package. All told, we’re talking about a quarter-century of American war in Afghanistan that shows no sign of letting up (or of success). It may not yet be a “hundred-years’ war,” but the years are certainly piling up.

Then, of course, there’s Iraq where you could start counting the years as early as 1982, when President Ronald Reagan’s administration began giving autocrat Saddam Hussein’s military support in his war against Iran.  You could also start with the first Gulf War of 1990-1991 when, on the orders of President George H.W. Bush, the U.S. military triumphantly drove Saddam’s army out of Kuwait.  Years of desultory air strikes, sanctions, and other war-like acts ended in George W. Bush’s sweeping invasion and occupation of Iraq in the spring of 2003, a disaster of the first order.  It punched a hole in the oil heartlands of the Middle East and started us down the path to, among other things, ISIS and so to Iraq War 3.0 (or perhaps 4.0), which began as an air campaign in August 2014 and has yet to end.  In the process, Syria was pulled into the mix and U.S. efforts there are still ratcheting up almost two years later.  In the case of Iraq, we’re minimally talking about almost three decades of intermittent warfare, still ongoing.

And then, of course, there’s Somalia. You remember the Blackhawk Down incident in 1993, don’t you? That was a lesson for the ages, right? Well, in 2017, the Trump administration is sending more advisers and trainers to that land (and the U.S. military has recently suffered its first combat death there since 1993). U.S. military activities, including drone strikes, are visibly revving up at the moment. And don’t forget Libya, where the Obama administration (along with NATO) intervened in 2011 to overthrow autocrat Muammar Gaddafi and where the U.S. military is still involved more than six years later.

Last but hardly least is Yemen.  The first U.S. special ops and CIA personnel moved into a “counter-terrorism camp” there in late 2001, part of a $400 million deal with the government of then-strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh, and the CIA conducted its very first drone assassination in that country in November 2002. Almost 16 years later, as TomDispatch regular Bill Hartung reports, the U.S. is supporting a grim Saudi air and ground war of terror there, while its own drone strikes have risen to new highs.

It’s a remarkable record and one to keep in mind as you consider Hartung’s account of President Trump’s fervent decision to back the Saudis in a big league way not just in their disastrous Yemeni war, but in their increasingly bitter campaign against regional rival Iran.  After so many decades of nearly unending conflict leading only to more of the same and greater chaos, you might wonder whether an alarm bell will ever go off in Washington when it comes to the U.S. military and war in the Greater Middle East — or is Iran nextTom

To continue reading Bill Hartung’s article at TomDispatch.com, click here.

The Endless, Victoryless, Afghan War

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Money isn’t always the answer …

W.J. Astore

Last week, I wrote an article for TomDispatch.com on the Afghan war.  You can read the entire article here, but I wanted to share some excerpts and some afterthoughts.

Some Excerpts

America’s war in Afghanistan is now in its 16th year, the longest foreign war in our history.  The phrase “no end in sight” barely covers the situation.  Prospects of victory — if victory is defined as eliminating that country as a haven for Islamist terrorists while creating a representative government in Kabul — are arguably more tenuous today than at any point since the U.S. military invaded in 2001 and routed the Taliban.  Such “progress” has, over the years, invariably proven “fragile” and “reversible,” to use the weasel words of General David Petraeus who oversaw the Afghan “surge” of 2010-2011 under President Obama.  To cite just one recent data point: the Taliban now controls 15% more territory than it did in 2015…

Afghanistan, U.S. military theorists claim, is a different kind of war, a fourth-generation war fought in a “gray zone”; a mish-mash, that is, of low-intensity and asymmetric conflicts, involving non-state actors, worsened by the meddling of foreign powers like Pakistan, Iran, and Russia — all mentioned in General Nicholson’s [recent] testimony [before the Senate Armed Services Committee].  (It goes without saying that the U.S. doesn’t see its military presence there as foreign.)  A skeptic might be excused for concluding that, to the U.S. military, fourth-generation warfare really means a conflict that will last four generations…

Asked by Senator Lindsey Graham whether he could do the job in Afghanistan with 50,000 troops, which would quadruple coalition forces there, [General] Nicholson answered with a “yes”; when asked about 30,000 U.S. and other NATO troops, he was less sure.  With that 50,000 number now out there in Washington, does anyone doubt that Nicholson or his successor(s) will sooner or later press the president to launch the next Afghan surge?  How else to counter all those terrorist strands in that petri dish?  (This, of course, represents déjà vu all over again, given the Obama surge [in 2009-10] that added 30,000 troops to 70,000 already in Afghanistan and yet failed to yield sustainable results.)

That a few thousand [additional] troops [requested by General Nicholson, the overall commander in Afghanistan] could somehow reverse the present situation and ensure progress toward victory is obviously a fantasy of the first order, one that barely papers over the reality of these last years: that Washington has been losing the war in Afghanistan and will continue to do so, no matter how it fiddles with troop levels.

Whether Soviet or American, whether touting communism or democracy, outside troops to Afghan eyes are certainly just that: outsiders, foreigners.  They represent an invasive presence.  For many Afghans, the “terrorist strands” in the petri dish [a metaphor General Nicholson used to describe the AfPak theater] are not only the Taliban or other Islamist sects; they are us.  We are among those who must be avoided or placated in the struggle to stay alive — along with government forces, seen by some Afghans as collaborators to the occupiers (that’s us again).  In short, we and our putative Afghan allies are in that same petri dish, thrashing about and causing harm, driving the very convergence of terrorist forces we say we are seeking to avoid.

In sum, I argued that the biggest foe the U.S. faces in Afghanistan is our own self-deception.  Rarely do we see ourselves as foreigners, and rarely do we perceive how pushy we are, even as we remain stubbornly ignorant or highly myopic when it comes to Afghan culture and priorities.

After I wrote my article for TomDispatch, I jotted down the following, somewhat disorganized, thoughts about ourselves and our wars.

Some Afterthoughts

There’s a form of war fatigue, a lack of interest, in the U.S.  We treat our wars as if they’re happening off stage, or even in another universe.  And I suppose for most Americans this is indeed the case.  The wars matter little to us.  Why?  Because they are largely invisible and without effect (until blowback).

There’s no narrative thread to our wars (Afghan/Iraq), unless it’s “déjà vu all over again.”  Lines don’t move on maps.  Enemies aren’t truly defeated.  Meanwhile, a war on terror is a contradiction in terms, because war is terror.  So you have “terror on terror,” which can only propagate more war.  And with President Trump throwing more money at the Pentagon, and hiring more generals and bellicose civilians, the dynamic created is as predictable as it is unstoppable: more and more war.

Trump seems to think that expanding the military will make us so strong that no one will dare attack us.  But that just raises the stakes for the underdogs.  More than ever, they’ll want to humble Goliath.

Here’s the thing.  I’m not an expert on Afghanistan.  I’ve never been there.  I’ve talked to soldiers and others who’ve been there, I’ve read lots of articles and books, but Afghanistan remains an intellectual/historical construct to me.  My own conceit that I can write about it with authority is my country’s conceit.  Afghanistan would be better without my advice, and without our country’s military intervention.

What I do know is my own country and my own military.  I know our forms of deception, our apologetics, our ways of thinking reductively about other peoples as problems to be solved with a judicious application of money or “surgical” military power.

As I write about Afghanistan, I’m really writing about my country and how it views Afghanistan.  We Americans see Afghanistan through a glass darkly; even worse, U.S. generals see it through a glass bloody — forever bloodstained and blackened by war.

America’s wars overseas are solipsistic wars.  When we do think about them, they’re all about us.  They’re not about Afghans or Iraqis or whomever.  They are mirrors in which we see favorable reflections of ourselves, flat surfaces that flatter us.  We prefer that to portals or revolving doors that we (and especially they) could walk through, that would expose us to hazards as well as to harsh truths.

Concluding Thought

Afghanistan is not a war for us to win, nor is it a country for us to make in our image.  It’s a very different culture, a very different world, one that will resist American (and other foreign) efforts to remake it, as it has for centuries and centuries.

Isn’t it time to let Afghanistan be Afghanistan?  To let its peoples find their own path?

War Pabulum: The Perils of War as a Master Narrative

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Photo by Paul Nadar (1891), from a French postcard

W.J. Astore

I was reading the novelist Ursula K. Le Guin and came across the following commentary by her:

“A hero whose heroism consists of killing people is uninteresting to me, and I detest the hormonal war orgies of our visual media … War as a moral metaphor is limited, limiting, and dangerous.  By reducing the choices of action to ‘a war against’ whatever-it-is, you divide the world into Me or Us (good) and Them or It (bad) and reduce the ethical complexity and moral richness of our life to Yes/No, On/Off.  This is puerile, misleading, and degrading.  In stories, it evades any solution but violence and offers the reader mere infantile reassurance.  All too often the heroes of such fantasies behave exactly as the villains do, acting with mindless violence, but the hero is on the ‘right’ side and therefore will win.”

This passage is copyrighted 2012, and surely Le Guin is commenting in part on the American political and war scene, even if these comments came as an afterword to her novel “A Wizard of Earthsea.”

The stories we tell ourselves – our driving narratives and metaphors – are very powerful.  I learned this almost three decades ago from one of my professors at Johns Hopkins.  We were talking about the scientific revolution, the label applied after the fact by historians to the era of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton.  Did that era truly deserve the label of a “revolution” in thought?  On one level, yes.  A heliocentric vision replaced a geocentric one.  Newtonian physics replaced Aristotelian metaphysics.  But on another level, the label was misleading.  If you view this era only through a “revolutionary” lens, everything gets magnified and refracted through it.  You’re always looking for evidence of the “revolution” that you know is there.  The revolutionary narrative/metaphor, in other words, restricts and distorts your vision.  It also tends to answer questions before they’re even asked.  Certain historical figures get labeled as “revolutionaries,” others as “reactionaries,” some as winners, others as losers, almost without having to think about it.

That’s disturbing enough for a historian dealing with the “dead” past.  Think about how that distortion, that resort to easy categorization, applies to the living, to the present, in “wartime.”  Viewing everything through a war lens both restricts and distorts our vision.  We quickly force people to take sides, or we assign them a side regardless of their complexity (“You’re either for us or against us,” as George W. Bush noted in the aftermath of 9/11).  Just as quickly, the “heroes” adopt the violent methods of the bad guys (witness the bombing, the invasions, the use of torture, performed by the U.S. in the stated cause of “liberation”).  No ethical complexity is tolerated since “our” troops are on the right side (so we think).  Even when they embrace violence and lose control, deadly mistakes and even war crimes are readily excused as aberrations that should be forgotten, rare exceptions that do nothing to besmirch America’s exceptional and heroic nature.

The power of narratives is remarkable.  The United States continues to be driven by one that’s dominated by power, violence, and war.  Is it any wonder, then, that the two major party candidates for the presidency, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, fit so easily and readily into this narrative?  Hillary plans to continue to wage war even more aggressively than Obama has, and Trump is all about violent solutions and an “Us” versus “Them” mentality.  (Build a wall!  Biggest, baddest military!  Make America great again!  Punch the protesters!    Extreme vetting!  Throw the illegals out!)

Until we change our national narrative from one of constant war and violence to something more pacific and modulated, our political scene will continue to be, to borrow Le Guin’s words, puerile and misleading and degrading, with candidates serving up heroic violence as pabulum, as infantile reassurance.

The Pentagon’s Mantra: Spend, Spend, Spend

Pentagon-Money
It’s spend, spend, spend at the Pentagon

W.J. Astore

The United States is addicted to war — and to war-spending.  That’s the message of Bill Hartung’s latest article at TomDispatch.com.  Hartung, the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy, writes:

The more that’s spent on “defense”… the less the Pentagon wants us to know about how those mountains of money are actually being used.  As the only major federal agency that can’t pass an audit, the Department of Defense (DoD) is the poster child for irresponsible budgeting. 

It’s not just that its books don’t add up, however.  The DoD is taking active measures to disguise how it is spending the hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars it receives every year — from using the separate “war budget” as a slush fund to pay for pet projects that have nothing to do with fighting wars to keeping the cost of its new nuclear bomber a secret.  Add in dozens of other secret projects hidden in the department’s budget and the Pentagon’s poorly documented military aid programs, and it’s clear that the DoD believes it has something to hide.

Having served in the military and DoD for twenty years and having read about it for twenty more, none of this surprises me.

Here’s the thing: In the Pentagon and the wider military, there’s absolutely no incentive to save money.  Indeed, the incentive is to spend as much as possible, because that is the best way to increase next year’s budgetary allotment. The military is filled with “Type A” officers whose job it is to spend, spend, spend, while fighting sister services for a bigger slice of the budgetary pie.  The more money you get for your program and service, the more likely you’ll get pats on the back, a medal or two, and a glowing promotion recommendation.

Next, Members of Congress.  Their incentive is also to spend — to bring home the pork to their districts.  And the most lucrative source of pork is “defense” spending, which has the added benefit of being easily spun as “patriotic” and in “support” of the troops.

Finally, the President.  His incentive is also to spend.  That’s the best way to avoid being charged as being “weak” on defense.  It’s also about the only leverage the US has left in foreign policy.  Just look at President Obama’s recent trip to Vietnam.  The headlines have focused on the US ending its 50-year arms embargo with Vietnam, as if that’s a wonderful thing for Americans and the Vietnamese.  As Peter Van Buren noted, normalizing relations with Vietnam by selling them lethal weapons is truly an exercise in cynicism by a declining American empire.

Whether it’s the Pentagon, the Congress, or the president, the whole defense wars and weapons complex is structured to spend the maximum amount of money possible while engorging and enlarging itself.  Small wonder it’s never passed an audit!

Making matters worse is how the Pentagon uses various shady practices (e.g. secret budgets) to hamstrung reformers seeking to corral the system’s excesses.  After detailing the Byzantine complexity of the budgetary process, Hartung concludes that:

If your head is spinning after this brief tour of the Pentagon’s budget labyrinth, it should be. That’s just what the Pentagon wants its painfully complicated budget practices to do: leave Congress, any administration, and the public too confused and exhausted to actually hold it accountable for how our tax dollars are being spent. So far, they’re getting away with it.

Put succinctly, the US National Security State may be losing its overseas wars, yet losing equates to winning when it comes to increased budgetary authority abetted by a Congress that prefers enablement to oversight.  And as any military officer knows, authority without responsibility is a recipe for serious abuse.

Reinforcing Failure

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Send in the troops … there ought to be troops … don’t bother they’re here

W.J. Astore

I get a situation report (or SITREP) from FP: Foreign Policy.  I’ve pasted it below.  The gist of it is that Afghanistan is going poorly, therefore there’ll be no U.S. troop drawdown; and Iraq is going poorly, therefore the U.S. is sending more troops and money.

“Poorly” never seems to lead to the obvious conclusion: withdrawal.  Rather it always leads to escalation: more troops and more money.  So the U.S. always reinforces failure, exactly the opposite of sound military strategy.

The illogical nature  of U.S. foreign policy would surely befuddle Mr. Spock. Put differently, U.S. foreign policy has a “logic” of its own.  It goes something like this: Never admit mistakes.  Domestic politics always come first, so never leave yourself open to charges of “cutting and running.”  Never close an avenue to “influence” and future weapons sales, no matter if that avenue is a dead end.

No foreign policy update would be complete without a Republican charge of weakness or pusillanimity leveled against the Obama administration, hence the concluding comment by John McCain.

Here is the FP SITREP:

“The Institute for the Study of War recently released a map of Taliban strongholds throughout the country, showing the Taliban gains in the south.”

“A spokesman for the U.S. military command in Kabul tells SitRep that no U.S. servicemembers were caught up in the attack. In a statement, Gen. John Nicholson, head of U.S. and NATO troops in the country, said that the attack “shows the insurgents are unable to meet Afghan forces on the battlefield and must resort to these terrorist attacks.” Nicholson, who took command of America’s longest war last month, is still working to draw up a list of recommendations for what assets he’ll need. It’s expected he will ask that troop numbers remain at the current level of 9,800, and not drop to about 5,500 by the end of the year.”

“All eyes on Mosul. There are another 217 U.S. troops headed to Iraq to help security forces fight their way toward the ISIS-held city of Mosul, bringing the official number of American servicemembers there to just over 4,000. Hundreds more are in country but are not counted on the official rolls, meaning the real number is over 5,000, defense officials have said.”

“As part of the new aid package announced in Baghdad by Defense Secretary Ash Carteron Monday, the Pentagon will also start handing over $415 million to the Kurdish government to help pay their fighters, who have gone without pay amid a budget crunch due to falling oil prices.”

“The new troops will move out with Iraqi forces, advising local commanders at the battalion level, potentially putting them closer to the fight as the Iraqi army pushes north toward Mosul. Until this point, American advisors generally stayed at the division level or above. The new troops will also fly Apache helicopters that will strike ISIS fighters and man artillery systems, including the HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System), which can fire multiple 200-lb. GPS-guided rockets over 40 miles. The HIMARS has already been used by U.S. forces to pound ISIS around Ramadi, and one U.S.-manned system has fired from Jordan into Syria in recent months. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) called the new deployment the kind of ‘grudging incrementalism that rarely wins wars.'”

The Missions Unaccomplished Force

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At least we win in Hollywood …

Tom Engelhardt.  Introduction by W.J. Astore.

Colonel (retired) Andrew Bacevich has a new article at TomDispatch as well as a new book on America’s War for the Greater Middle East (my copy is already coming in the mail). Bacevich’s main point in his latest article couldn’t be more clear: Congressional cowardice.  Congress refuses to exercise the people’s authority over presidential warmaking, a gross dereliction of duty that ensures perpetual wars with missions perennially left unaccomplished.  And that is the theme of Tom Engelhardt’s introduction to Bacevich’s article.

You’ve heard of the Impossible Missions Force, or IMF, which somehow always gets the job done, whether led by Martin Landau or Peter Graves or Tom Cruise?  Well, that’s Hollywood.  In the real world, we have the MUF, or Missions Unaccomplished Force.  Yes, they always muff it, no matter if the “Decider” is the strutting George W. Bush or the cool and calculating Barack Obama.  But let Tom Engelhardt tell the tale …  W.J. Astore  

The Missions Unaccomplished Force, by Tom Engelhardt

It was a large banner and its message was clear.  It read: “Mission Accomplished,” and no, I don’t mean the classic “mission accomplished” banner on the USS Abraham Lincoln under which, on May 1, 2003, President George W. Bush proudly proclaimed (to the derision of critics ever since) that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended.”  I’m actually referring to a September 1982 banner with those same two words (and an added “farewell” below them) displayed on a landing craft picking up the last Marines sent ashore in Beirut, Lebanon, to be, as President Ronald Reagan put it when they arrived the previous August, “what Marines have been for more than 200 years — peace-makers.”  Of course, when Bush co-piloted an S-3B Viking sub reconnaissance Naval jet onto the deck of the Abraham Lincoln and made his now-classic statement, major combat had barely begun in Iraq (and it has yet to end) — nor was it peace that came to Beirut in September 1982: infamously, the following year 241 Marines would die there in a single day, thanks to a suicide bomber.

“Not for the last time,” writes Andrew Bacevich in his monumental new work, America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History, “the claim proved to be illusory.”  Indeed, one of the grim and eerie wonders of his book is the way in which just about every wrongheaded thing Washington did in that region in the 14-plus years since 9/11 had its surprising precursor in the two decades of American war there before the World Trade Center towers came down.  U.S. military trainers and advisers, for example, failed (as they later would in Iraq and Afghanistan) to successfully build armies, starting with the Lebanese one; Bush’s “preventive war” had its predecessor in a Reagan directive called (ominously enough given what was to come) “combating terrorism”; Washington’s obsessive belief of recent years that problems in the region could be solved by what Andrew Cockburn has called the “kingpin strategy” — the urge to dismantle terror organizations by taking out their leadership via drones or special operations raids — had its precursor in “decapitation” operations against Muammar Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, and Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid with similar resulting mayhem.  The belief that “an additional increment of combat power might turn around a failing endeavor” — call it a “surge,” if you will — had its Iraq and Afghan pretrial run in Somalia in 1993.  And above all, of course, there was Washington’s unquenchable post-1980 urge to intervene, military first, in a decisive way throughout the region, which, as Bacevich writes, only “produced conditions conducive to further violence and further disorder,” and if that isn’t the repetitive history of America’s failed post-2001 wars in a nutshell, what is?

As it happened, the effects of such actions from 1980 on were felt not just in the Greater Middle East and Africa, but in the United States, too.  There, as Bacevich writes today, war became a blank-check activity for a White House no longer either checked (in any sense) or balanced by Congress.  Think of it as another sad tale of a surge (or do I mean a decapitation?) that went wrong.