Been There, Done That
The American Way of War as a Do-Over
By Tom Engelhardt
With General John Campbell’s tour of duty in Afghanistan finished, a new commander has taken over. Admittedly, things did not go well during Campbell’s year and a half heading up the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) there, but that’s par for the course. In late 2015, while he was in the saddle, the Taliban took the provincial capital of Kunduz, the first city to be (briefly) theirs since the American invasion of 2001. In response, U.S. forces devastated a Doctors Without Borders hospital. The Taliban is also now in control of more territory than at any time since the invasion and gaining an ever-firmer grip on contested Helmand Province in the heart of the country’s poppy-growing region (and so the staggering drug funds that go with it). In that same province, only about half of the “on duty” Afghan security forces the United States trained, equipped, and largely funded (to the tune of more than $65 billion over the years) were reportedly even present.
On his way into retirement, General Campbell has been vigorously urging the Obama administration to expand its operations in that country. (“I’m not going to leave,” he said, “without making sure my leadership understands that there are things we need to do.”) In this, he’s been in good company. Behind the scenes, “top U.S. military commanders” have reportedly been talking up a renewed, decades-long commitment to Afghanistan and its security forces, what one general has termed a “generational approach” to the war there.
And yes, as Campbell headed off stage, General John Nicholson, Jr., beginning his fourth tour of duty in Afghanistan, has officially taken command of ISAF. Though it wasn’t a major news item, he happens to be its 17th commander in the 14-plus years of Washington’s Afghan War. If this pattern holds, by 2030 that international force, dominated by the U.S., will have had 34 commanders and have fought, by at least a multiple of two, the longest war in our history. Talk about all-American records! (USA! USA!)
If such a scenario isn’t the essence of déjà vu all over again, what is? Imagine, for a minute, each of those 17 ISAF commanders (recently, but not always, Americans, including still resonant names like David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal as well as those like Dan McNeill and David McKiernan already lost in the fog of time) arriving at yearly intervals, each scrambling to catch-up, get the big picture, and run the show. Imagine that process time after time, and you have the definition of what, in kid culture, might be called a do-over — a chance to get something right after doing it wrong the first time. Of course, yearly do-overs are a hell of a way to run a war, but they’re a great mechanism for ensuring that no one will need to take responsibility for a disaster of 14 years and counting.
How to Play Do-Over
For journalists, when it comes to twenty-first-century American war, do-overs are a boon. From collapsing U.S.-trained, funded, and equipped local militaries to that revolving door for commanders in Afghanistan to terror groups whose leaderships are eternally being eviscerated yet are never wiped out, do-overs ensure that your daily copy is essentially pre-written for you. In fact, when it comes to American-style war across the Greater Middle East and increasingly much of Africa, do-over is the name of the game.
In movie terms, you could think of Washington’s war policies in the post-9/11 era as pure “play it again, Sam.” If this weren’t the grimmest “game” around, involving death, destruction, failed states, spreading terror movements, and a region flooded with the uprooted — refugees, internal exiles, transient terrorists, and god knows who else — it could instantly be transmuted into a popular parlor game. We could call it “Do-Over.” The rules would be easy to grasp, though — fair warning — given the recent record of American war making, it could be a very long game.
Modest preparation would be involved, since you’d be using actual headlines from the previous weeks. Given the nature of the Bush administration’s Global War on Terror (now the Obama administration’s no-name war on terror), however, this shouldn’t be a daunting proposition. Any cursory reader of the news, aged 12 to 75, will find it easy to take part. Let me give you just a handful of examples of how Do-Over would work from a plethora of recent news stories:
* Here, for instance, is a typical, can’t-miss, Do-Over headline: “Back to Iraq: U.S. Military Contractors Return In Droves.” For Washington’s third Iraq War, with a military that now heads into any battle zone hand-in-hand with a set of warrior corporations, the private contractors are returning to Iraq in significant numbers. In the good old days, after the invasion of 2003, for every American soldier in Iraq, there was at least one private contractor. As RAND’s Molly Dunnigan wrote back in 2013, “By 2008, the U.S. Department of Defense employed 155,826 private contractors in Iraq — and 152,275 troops. This degree of privatization is unprecedented in modern warfare.” (Afghan War figures were remarkably similar: in 2010, there were 94,413 contractors and 91,600 American troops in that country.) Now, in the ongoing war against the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq, contractors, 70% American, hired by the Pentagon and other U.S. agencies outnumber the 3,700 U.S. military personnel on the ground by two to one or more and the names of the companies putting them there should ring a distinctly Do-Over bell from the previous round of war: KBR, DynCorp, and Fluor Corporation, among others. Of course, since it’s a Do-Over and we know just what happened the last time around, what could possibly go wrong?
* Here’s another kind of headline for the game. Think of it as a “new” Do-Over (a story that looks like a first-timer, but couldn’t be more repetitive): “U.S. Plans to Put Advisers on Front Lines of Nigeria’s War Against Boko Haram.” As the New York Times reports, a plan developed by Brigadier General Donald Bolduc, U.S. Special Operations commander for Africa, to “send dozens of Special Operations advisers to the front lines of Nigeria’s fight against the West African militant group Boko Haram” is expected to be approved by the Pentagon and the White House. Those special ops forces, “dozens” of them, are slated to advise Nigerian troops for the first time in the embattled northern part of their country. Though theirs will not officially be a combat role, they will be stationed in an area where anything might happen. At first glance, this may seem like something new under the sun in Washington’s expanding “war against the Islamic State” (to which Boko Haram has pledged its fealty), but only until you consider a remarkably similar October 2015 headline about a neighboring country: “The U.S. Is Sending 300 Military Personnel to Cameroon to Help Fight Boko Haram.” Those special ops troops were to conduct “airborne intelligence and reconnaissance operations” against that grim Nigerian terror group. Or to leap back another year, consider this headline from May 2014: “U.S. Deploys 80 Troops to Chad to Help Find Kidnapped Nigerian Schoolgirls.” (They weren’t found.) And of course, similar headlines could be multiplied across the Greater Middle East over the last decade against groups like al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the Islamic State from Yemen to, most recently, Iraq and Syria, with similarly dismal results.
For your success in finding such a headline, you get a bonus question: Fourteen-plus years later, after U.S. special ops forces have repeatedly been sent to scads of countries, and the terror situation has only worsened, what exactly do they have to teach Nigerians or anyone else for that matter? What is it that Washington’s guys know about the world of terror and how to fight it that locals don’t? Given the global record over these years, call that a mystery of our moment.
* Now, here’s an even rarer form of Do-Over, a headline that calls up not one, but — count ‘em! — two repetitive themes in the American war on terror: “U.S. Captures ISIS Operative, Ushering in Tricky Phase.” The story itself is fairly straightforward. A secretive elite Special Operations team in Iraq has captured “a significant Islamic State operative,” with more such prisoners expected in the near future. The captive is presently being held and questioned “at a temporary detention facility in the city of Erbil in northern Iraq.” What no one in Washington has yet sorted out is: Where are such detainees to be kept in the future? It’s a question that, as you might imagine (and the accompanying New York Times story makes clear), instantly brings to mind Guantanamo and, in Iraq, Abu Ghraib (with its nightmarish photos), and that’s just to begin a longer list of grim places, including a string of “black sites,” and military and CIA prisons begged, borrowed, or appropriated across the planet in the Bush years. In all of them, American intelligence and military personnel (and private contractors) grossly abused, mistreated, tortured and in some cases actually killed prisoners. So in the conundrum of what to do with that single Islamic State captive lies an almost endless set of Do-Over possibilities. Lurking in that same headline, however, is another kind of Do-Over of these last years reflecting another set of repetitive war on terror practices: “U.S. drone strike kills a senior Islamic State militant in Syria,” “U.S. drone strike kills Yemen al-Qaida leader Nasir al-Wuhayshi,” “U.S. Commandos Raid Terrorist Hideouts in Libya, Somalia, Capture Senior Al-Qaeda Official.” In these and so many other headlines like them lies evidence of a deeply held Washington conviction that terror outfits can be successfully disabled and in the end dismantled, as can repressive states like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq or Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya, by taking out key leadership figures. This heavily militarized top-down approach, labeled “the kingpin strategy,” has been brought to bear time and again in America’s post-9/11 conflicts. That there is no evidence at all of its effectiveness (and significant evidence that it actually succeeds in making such groups more brutal and efficient and such states into failed ones) seems not to matter. So in any headline about a terror leader or lieutenant captured in a U.S. special ops raid, there is automatically a second classic Do-Over theme.
* Now, what about a Do-Over round for events that haven’t even happened and yet are already in reruns? Take this recent headline: “After Gains Against ISIS, Pentagon Focuses on Mosul.” We’re talking about a much-predicted U.S.-backed Iraqi (and Kurdish) offensive against Mosul. Small numbers of Islamic State militants took Iraq’s second largest city in June 2014 after the American-trained Iraqi army collapsed and fled, shedding quantities of American-provided equipment and their uniforms. The offensive to retake it was being touted in a somewhat similar manner a year ago by U.S. Central Command. At that time, 20,000 to 25,000 Iraqi troops were supposedly being prepared to recapture the city in a spring 2015 offensive that somehow never came to be (perhaps because those 20,000 or more troops essentially didn’t then exist). That “pivotal battle” to come was at the time being promoted by American military officials. As Reuters wrote, it was “highly unusual for the U.S. military to openly telegraph the timing of an upcoming offensive, especially to a large group of reporters.” As it turned out, they tipped those reporters off to nothing.
At the moment, Pentagon officials are touting such an offensive all over again for spring 2016, or if not quite now, as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Joseph Dunford put it recently, at least not in “the deep, deep future.” (Iraqi military officials, however, already beg to differ, predicting that such an offensive will be at least many months away “or longer.” Welcome to the Mosul offensive of 2017!) Of course, we already have a remarkably clear idea of what Mosul will look like in the wake of such an offensive, should it ever happen. After all, we know just how the smaller Iraqi city of Ramadi ended up after a six-month campaign by U.S.-trained and backed Iraqi troops to retake it from Islamic State militants: largely depopulated, 80% destroyed, and a landscape of rubble thanks to hundreds of U.S. air strikes, street-by-street fighting, and IS booby traps (with no rebuilding funds available). In other words, we already have a Do-Over vision of a future Mosul, should 2016 finally be the year when those Iraqi troops (and American advisers and planes) arrive in the IS-occupied city. (Perhaps the only non-Do-Over possibility is the grimmest of all — that, as the American Embassy in Baghdad has suddenly taken to warning, Mosul’s massive, compromised dam could collapse as the winter snows melt, essentially sweeping the city away and possibly killing hundreds of thousands of downstream Iraqis.)
On the positive side, since the American war on terror shows no sign of abating or succeeding, and as no one in Washington seems ready to consider anything strategically or tactically but more (or slightly less) of the same, Do-Over has a potentially glowing future as a war game. After all, based on almost 15 years of experience from Afghanistan to Nigeria, further destruction, chaos, the growth of failed states, the spread of terror groups, and monumental flows of refugees seem guaranteed, which means that there should never be a dearth of Do-Over-style headlines to draw on.
One warning, though: in the annals of such games, this one is unique. Because of the nature of the American way of war in our time, Do-Over may be the only game ever invented in which there can be no ultimate winner and, unfortunately, the tag line “Everyone’s a loser!” doesn’t seem like a selling way to go. Though the game is still in its planning stages, perhaps the ending has to be something realistic and yet thrilling like: “You’ve been Done-In!”
Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He is a fellow of the Nation Institute and runs TomDispatch.com. His latest book is Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.
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Copyright 2016 Tom Engelhardt